The Calm Blue Sea – Arrivals & Departures Record Label: Modern Outsider Records
Release Date: October 9, 2012
Everybody knows that the sea is blue, but it’s never as simple as the chunky color you’ll see on crayon drawings in elementary classrooms: even one cursory glance betrays a myriad of tones beneath the shimmering surface of the water. Translucent shades of green, filling the sea with light. Gloomy, stormy bits of gray in the parts of the deep beyond that we leave to our imagination. Vibrant swirls of indigo at night, promising life even as it conceals it from our vision.
Arrivals & Departures, the follow-up to Texas post-rockers The Calm Blue Sea’s self-titled debut, offers a spectacular range of colors, yet every one of them feels connected, all part of one ocean so big it baffles our brains to visualize it: how fitting that the second track is titled “Samsara”, the repeating cycle of birth, life, death, and reincarnation in various religions. The song itself follows its eponymous pattern, beginning with a series of downtempo piano chords that give way to a tragically understated main melody. The song progresses from this foundation by layering other instruments into the mix: haunting vocals echo, buried deep into the sound, drums patter like so many distant raindrops, and yet the melody is always at the heart of the track, pulsing on no matter what the weather. Even when the song explodes at its end, bursting into a tempest of emotional debris, when everything finally settles down, the piano is the only survivor, playing on despite the wreckage in its wake.
If “Samsara” is raw and emotional, “We Will Never Be As Young As We Are Tonight”, at least at first, is a touch more precise, almost constructed. It begins similarly, with synth piano chords ringing out over the front, before it swings into a warm groove, courtesy of the nimble percussion. Just when the track threatens to plod, though, The Calm Blue Sea unhinges it completely, breaking down the nuts and bolts, then reconfiguring them into more sinister shapes. Disembodied vocals hang over the melodies like clouds, while the melodies just shift, first from warm, inviting tones to frigid, isolated ones, and when the percussion explodes, the thermometer shatters as well, leaving no way to distinguish the colors of the melodies.
What’s remarkable with all of these dramatic shifts is just how well The Calm Blue Sea manage each one, having each piece fit into the larger scope of their story. In just under five minutes, we go from the blistering finale of “Pont Des Mouton” to the transitory “Diaspora”, which both calls back to the piano line from “Samsara” and layers repetition upon repetition for intensity, segueing into the elegiac “Mary Ann Nichols”. Unfortunately, their emphasis on construction can lead them to spin their wheels at times, which is the downfall of the dynamic but disappointingly inert “Pont Des Mouton”.
Other times, though, the band reaffirms the virtue of patience, most notably on “Mary Ann Nichols”. Fittingly for a track named after one of the Whitechapel murder victims, the tone is overwhelmingly funereal, laying sad, lost vocals over understated piano and soft drums—but then there’s a sudden break in the clouds. The guitar suddenly breaks into a surprisingly searing, barren melody as the drums begin to rise, and we get a brief glimpse of hope before the track bursts to life, still solemn but now burning with anger. Yet with each repetition of that motif, it soars a little higher. So do the drums, which carry the track’s sustained build to an explosive finale: by any metric, the churning, cathartic ending to “Mary Ann Nichols” is a highlight of the album, rivaling the best of post-rock band 65daysofstatic, the masters of musical chaos, in terms of sheer fury.
By the end of the album, the band finally lays everything bare in a race against time: penultimate track “Tesoro” is a masterpiece in dynamics, first reveling in the churning, hazy madness of The Calm Blue Sea’s most furious moments, then leaving room for the most breathtakingly delicate passage to be found on Arrivals & Departures, a piano section that evokes benchmark standard Explosions In The Sky in its simple beauty—and the marching-drum rhythms that lay them to rest. The climax, which allows a brief bit of clarity on this murky, twisted album, swells majestically; its earthy, grounded texture is nothing different from the blend the band usually aims for, but it’s used to a completely different effect here. Finale “To Approach The Vivian Girls” is a climb from beginning to end, albeit one that offers one of the few outright triumphs to be found here: the trumpets that play out the album in a moment of glorious fanfare. The choice to end on such a note is yet more evidence of The Calm Blue Sea’s penchant for construction, not just in the structures of their songs but also in the emotions lying just beneath.
Loss is a powerful theme on this album, from the references to murdered women and death/rebirth to that piano line from “Samsara”, a motif that leaves undercurrents of mourning throughout the album. Yet what is admirable about The Calm Blue Sea is the intimacy they bring to a viewpoint that at times seems to be about distancing ourselves. Arrivals inevitably end in departures, yes, but there are so many colors that we live in between, all of which are painted in vivid strokes by the band. Ultimately, then, Arrivals & Departures feels like an attempt at perspective, as we rise above the swells of the waves grazing our faces in order to see the ocean in all its splendor, all of the potential it has to offer.
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