At War With Walls & Mazes is a stunning debut wrung from classical precision and good old human gut-wrench. Son Lux’s first is a heady collection of songs breathing the same air and sharing the same space; painted from the same palette but set apart still—each is a distinct region of one broad, heaving sonic landscape. From afar, it’s an environment characterized by would-be contradictions: the austere grandness of chamber music undercut by undulating electronica; the intricately orchestral assembled via hip-hop collage; a day-plain pop ease silhouetted by deep soul. Up close, it’s clear that these contradictions are what hold the entire work together.
The prologue begins with the warm quaver of harmonica and a cold, androgynous breath: “Put down all your weapons/Let me in through your open wounds.” There’s a burst of drum, a piano hit that overwhelms the ears, and we’re on At War’s terra firma. First song “Break” is quiet and composed, punctuated by stabs of chaos—reversed instruments, errant electricity, an angry crowd—and given moody depth by the voice of Son Lux, which returns raw and whisper-pretty like Will Oldham’s. Next, “Weapons” flow in and out itself, building static, crystalline keys and thick bass into a pile of sharp edges that bounces like a rubber ball. An angelic cry breaks the rhythmic reverie and the snapping, cracking soundscape goes Richter. Conversely, “Betray” lays a slinky Portishead sulk for its bedrock, then morphs into a laidback, flute-textured upbeat. “Stay” counters this with a swarm of organ and violins, and a deep, unexpected blues.
The picture is always shifting—songs starting on a blast or ending in a whirling climb, occasionally dwelling in a single mood, but never succumbing to traditional structure. There’s “Tell,” which feels intimate, comprised of subtle tones, naked keys, low buzzing slide bass and voice sounding like a transmission from a tin-lined burrow. While the next plot over, “Wither” is a note-smashing hulk of machine crunch and skittering percussion, technically complex and seriously loud. Son Lux’s lyrics don't distract from the journey. Rather, the one and two-line snippets wind their way through the album’s space like mantras to be picked up or passed at will. In “Raise,” a macabre poetry moves with the music, coming in dulcet over bleeding sax, then getting swept up by swirling strings and pulsing electro. On “Stand,” a single unexplained sentence—“You stand between me and all my enemies”—is repeated ad infinitum, gaining in meaning even as it’s subducted under the piano-driven epic. As various permutations of voice, music and noise emerge, one imagines the Notwist’s Markus Acher lost in the bowels of Radiohead’s “Pyramid Song.”
This is a very good thing. After this undeniable apex, At War With Walls & Mazes approaches its quiet close. “War” is a sleepy overture to Son Lux’s wide embrace, glowing warm and full until white light gives way to the epilogue, and the album’s only outright motif: the “Weapons” melody, first heard with the prologue’s opening line. Then, Son Lux asked us to drop our weapons and let him in; now, leaving this place, his apparent plea seems much more like an invitation.
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