Look, I like post-rock as much as the next guy. I enjoy the jazz-like emotional meltdowns, the freedom of structure, and the intricate layers that often make it so that each new listen becomes its own unique experience. I like the build-ups and erruptions that are so woven into the fabric of the genre, the way instruments can behave independently one second and then, in a snap, collide with all the others to form a unified expression. But if there’s one thing that quickly gets in the way of my enjoyment of a post-rock record, it’s haste. For precisely this reason, Toward the Low Sun is a record that more often than not frustrates rather than engrosses, especially up front.
It is important to note right now that Toward the Low Sun is my first experience with Dirty Three, in spite of the fact that they’ve been around for nearly two decades and this marks their eighth studio album. Regardless of the resume, bands are constantly making first impressions. Considering this, “Furnace Skies” is one of the more peculiar post-rock album openers I can recall. The track mixes a jumbled assortment of electric guitar and bass riffs, warbling Casio-esque organ, and scattershot percussion that defies rhythm so shamelessly that it’s actually a bit mind-boggling, to create a single song that effectively uses up every component the band has in its arsenal. As introductions go, this curious machination is about as off-putting as it gets. Post-rock may be defined by loose format, but “Furnace Skies” functions far more like an arbitrary collections of mismatched sounds than as a song. It just doesn’t make sense to start at what feels like the climax.
The further away from that opening track, the more digestible, if unspectacular, the songs become. “Sometimes I Forget You’ve Gone” is a lesser version of “Furnace Skies” with some piano sewn in, while “Moon on the Land” focuses most of its attention on Warren Ellis’ violin and light, distant acoustic guitar. These cuts don’t inspire repeated listens, but they do a much better job of accepting baseline song structures, capturing mood, and getting away from the haphazard-by-design nature exhibited at the top. A more ideal tracklist might have bumped these two to the front and snuck “Furnace Skies” in third; such an adjustment wouldn’t have saved the album’s front-end completely, but it would have been an improvement. The lack of sincerity is what stalls the free-wheeling opening jam, but when they’re able to combine tangible moods and emotion without being overly wayward with experimentation, as they start to do with “Sometimes I Forget You’ve Gone” and “Moon on the Land,” the pieces do begin to fit nicely. It just takes so long to reach that juncture.
“Rising Below” represents the album’s turning point, effectively taking the first half’s most frustrating aspects and slowly transitioning into what makes the home stretch so pleasant. The track accents scratchy, agonized violin with guitar strums that bounce mismatched notes back and forth off one another in the same sort of deliberately frustrating way the album begins with. But as the song goes on and more layers swell up, what once sounded like an intentional break down in fluidity begins to gel. Bits of corporeal structure start to identify themselves and finally, Dirty Three fall into a slick groove.
“Rain Song,” for instance, thrives because of its subtleness. It pushes the band’s most recognizable trait — that beautiful violin — to the front of the arrangement and wastes no time with clunky, distracting layers. The drums latch onto a steady beat, the guitars follow suit, and the song is able to flow naturally because of it. Without each instrument pulling in a different direction, a coherent landscape is able to render itself. As the song bleeds into the much thicker, more volatile standout “That Was Was,” the album begins to feel like what post-rock should feel like: a collection of highs and lows that ultimately share some destination or commonality (even if that destination changes with each new spin). If things hadn’t begun so impetuously and then been so slow to recover thereafter, Toward the Low Sun could have really soared.
Often the two most important marks for an album are the beginning and the end; leading with a powerful first impression builds momentum for the songs to come, while closing strong is the hook that draws a listener back. Toward the Low Sun staggers to get that momentum, though it does achieve atonement through progression. Still, my own interest never fully recovered. There are glimpses of longing and fragility that drew me back closer, but by and large my post-rock tastes have not been entirely satiated. Those hasty beginnings, they get me every time.