“Stairwells have always been intriguing. They appear to unavoidably lead you to your destination, but they only disclose the path bit by bit. What lies far ahead of you and far beyond you is hidden in the shadows. The stairwell could just as well be infinite. You climb up this murky stairwell, passing by many doors. Every door contains a variation of the mood, a short film, a song.”
It’s quite a nice album concept actually, but one that needs to be properly exploited if it’s going to work at all; working with a basis of unknowing and limitless possibility, it’d be senseless if each of these tracks slotted in neatly into listener expectation and picked up naturally from the track previous. Thankfully, From The Stairwell succeeds in being a diverse and visually provocative release, with some rather bizarre images coming to light during the listener’s spiraling ascent through the pitch black. And it’s this unlit stairwell which helps to provide the album with a core sound on which its more unfamiliar elements can flourish; a gloomy combination of brass, bass, vocals, guitar and keys, scattered sparingly over a bed of brush-drums. Even the album’s denser moments are made to sound minimal and spacious, with a sinister darkness running through the gaps.
From The Stairwell is most interesting when TKDE make their most grand and unexpected departures from familiarity. The disturbing and hallucinogenic “Cocaine” is the most prominent example – reverse chimes, splutters and scrapes, inhuman whimpers, with drums forging an ironically structured thud within the otherwise arrhythmic and atonal chaos. The melodies that begin to emerge during the final minutes are perhaps more unnerving than anything else. And then there’s album closer “Past Midnight”, on which the instruments seem to stagger aimlessly in a bewildered dissonance. Drums are entirely absent, and the record comes to an appropriately inconclusive stop, as though leaving the listener stranded in the dark, halfway up the stairwell.
But TKDE don’t push this too far, and the album is still largely based around the “darkjazz” grooves of previous releases, interlocking bass and drums to leave melodies and improvisation of other instruments to enter and depart as they please. Listener expectation is subverted by subtler methods during these points – abrupt dynamic shifts, surprise turns in mood.
My only criticism is that these tracks aren’t all segued into each other. Perhaps it’s a rather clichéd way to bring a concept album together, but I think it would have worked nicely in this instance – as it is, moments of silence between tracks feel like a temporary escape, and the nightmarish journey into the dark doesn’t feel so daunting and genuine after all.
But I’m sure the band have their own artistic reasons for not doing this. And besides, TKDE impressively stick by their concept in all other departments, resisting temptation to sink too far into familiar territory, without sounding forced and uncomfortable when they choose to break away from it. From The Stairwell is a bold and immersive trip.