Dirty Three, ‘Toward the Low Sun’ (Drag City)
Release Date: February 29, 2012
Label: Drag City
Seeing Warren Ellis play live with Nick Cave’s now-defunct garage-rock monstrosity Grinderman — at one gloriously manic point, Cave would throw Ellis to the ground in a moment of pure rock fury — was to see Rasputin hurled across the stage by the Czar himself. In recent years, Cave’s closest musical collaborator and a part of the man’s particular empire of Bad Seeds since 1995, Ellis was the power behind the Grinderman project, the ovoid loops from his violin or electric “Mandocaster” mandolin the cornerstone upon which the group built its Church of Middle-Aged Horniness.
It’s tough not to recall his contribution (and mourn Grinderman’s passing) when considering Toward the Low Sun, the eighth album in 19 years from Ellis’ primary outfit, the instrumental trio Dirty Three, which also stars restrained guitarist Mick Turner and eight-armed drummer Jim White. It’s been seven years since their last album, the somewhat exhausting sprawl of Cinder, which featured shorter songs, but 70 minutes of them, with guest vocals from Chan Marshall and Sally Timms. Such guests suggested a frustration with the Dirty Three aesthetic more than a real interest in expanding it. The record wasn’t quite a failure, but it was the weakest in an exceptionally strong catalog (the unfamiliar should start with stunning mid-’90s albums Horse Stories and Ocean Songs, after hiding the knives and grabbing the tissues). A break was clearly needed.
Since then, Ellis has doubled down on his second career as Cave’s chief collaborator and onstage foil, Turner has focused on painting (his art adorns most of the Three’s album covers), and White has become a go-to drummer for such luminaries as PJ Harvey and Will Oldham. But now they’re reunited, stripping back and returning to first purposes. With no lyrics to hem in the songs’ meanings, the band’s blend of emotional impressionism and musical expressionism has reemerged.
Toward the Low Sun is what the Dirty Three do best: enigmatic instrumentals that redefine the notions of power in a power trio, a three-headed beast that trades off thoughts with nuance and grace, like a Cerebus dancing a waltz, then knocking back a beer at the bar. You can hear Ellis’ aggressive, Grinderman scrape and buzz all over opener “Furnace Skies,” one of their all-time best songs. A low-end, quick-fire distorto-loop and heaving organ bump up against White’s frantic, free-jazz drumming, with Ellis’s violin soaring through the maelstrom. It’s a thunderously assertive gesture, recalling both Albert Ayler’s fondness for turning European folk melodies into soulful chaos and the mental static you live with after getting dumped, losing a job, or bearing the burden when that test result comes back positive.
Ellis has also done a fair amount of soundtrack work, and his ability to sketch stories sans lyrics has gotten better with time. On some songs here, any instrument other than the core three takes on an almost narrative role, the POV character among familiar elements. “Sometimes I Forget You’ve Gone” blends dark-eyed piano chords with skittering drums and eventual guitar; in “Moon on the Land,” the acoustic guitar seems the odd man out, while a dialogue between Ellis’ violin melody and the strummed chords opens up, rays of light between the clouds.
This material isn’t improvised — the parts are clearly worked out — but there is a feeling that must be captured, even if it can’t be named completely, if the song is to work. On “The Pier,” all the instruments but the the violin vanish, Ellis’ melody driving the story; Turner’s muted fingerpicking dominates “Rain Song.” And “That Was Was” brings the noise back with a howl of amp feedback, a reassertion of the trio’s collective strength before the twin ballads “Ashen Snow” (with meditative piano interlacing with a wind instrument and a gentle melody) and “You Greet Her Ghost” (Ellis’ violin recalling earlier melodies, providing a solid coda).
Like a rocks glass full of tequila, the Dirty Three aren’t really an everyday listen — if you think they are, you should probably consult a physician, like, now. But in the right moment, there’s nothing quite like this Rasputin and his brothers in arms.