While the general conversation in society with regards to mental health has made some good strides in the past few decades, there’s still a long way to go. In a musical environment it’s often easier for an artist to be frank about suffering through mental health issues, and many musicians will put this into their work as a way of processing. The conversation and attitudes still need greater consideration though; too often music is perceived as the final say on the matter. The problem was purged through the music; catharsis reached and all is well; just needed to get it out of my system, etc. Music is a means to an end, as society would have us believe.
What’s not documented or discussed much is how the story doesn’t always end once an album is done recording and comes into the world. For those with chronic conditions, there often isn’t a light at the end of the tunnel. This is the weight behind the music on Beyond the Reach of Light from Oakland noise and experimental musician Drew Zercoe (aka Field of Fear): the album captures a gruelling period of depression that doesn’t wrap itself up neatly at the end. It’s unrelenting at its most intense, and even when it lets up, it’s still densely surrounded. That cover art says it all: a Spencer Davie painting of an empty chair in an almost entirely dark room. Bleakness, isolation, and darkness are the name of the game here.
Some light does break through, but only in small amounts. “Cold” is a foggy hum that feels like a breath of air compared to its surroundings, but the light is still far from direct; it’s like the sun silhouetting through polluted smog. When the distorted, ringing noise on “Familiar” disappears it reveals a gentle plucked guitar melody, like a reminder that there’s both uncountable layers in the music here, but also that there’s a glimmer of humanity amongst the often industrial, metallic noise.
It would be understandable for Beyond the Reach of Light to be thick grey slabs of unchanging noise, but that wouldn’t capture the debilitating, harrowing effect of chronic depression. “Shadowed” throbs like a migraine, the marching beat swallowing its surroundings. For a moment it pauses and the relief just about sets in before being snatched away, the screeches and distortion crashing back into frame twice as hard. Final track “Lost” is an aberrated swamp with no reference points in its landscape, serving as a cruel reminder that there is no easy escape.
There’s melody and rhythm here, but they are often devoured by their surroundings. It feels like a representation of Zercoe calling from the bottom of a well, industrial clamour and dense layers of field recordings (taken from around Oakland) decimating the human cries for help. There’s little in the way of help or even a strand of rope to offer Zercoe amidst it all, which makes the album a bleak listening experience (even though it runs near a half hour long). It would be a false narrative to weave if the record left you feeling hopeful though; this is music of someone in pain.
The bellowing low sine wave sirens that open the record on “Dusk” seem to summon a looming presence; it’s a warning alarm as much as it is an unstoppable force. There’s no preventing it, but if there was then that wouldn’t be true to how Zercoe is feeling. The depression is persistent – unappeasable even. Beyond the Reach of Light is the grind of it all, the dark daily struggle.