Saintseneca : Dark Arc
What is it that makes us identify with a band?
Is it because we like an aspect of their music? The lyrics? Their distinct sound? Did they put out a string of really fantastic albums, or address issues we care about through their songs (or in their time away from making art matter)? Or is it something deeper? Is it because their music speaks to us on some personal level, one that's made us really connect to them as a band.
While none of the above answers are by any means wrong, I tend to think that the music that makes the biggest impact on our lives is often that with which we form a real connection. That music which helps us define who we are, that teaches us the ways of the world, or that reaches out to us and makes us feel a little less alone.
For me, Saintseneca is a band like that.
The first time I remember really listening Zac Little and his frequently rotating group of cohorts was in January of 2012. Their album "Last" had come out the previous summer, and they we're playing a show at WIUX (the radio station for which I served as music director during my college years) in support of it. The album had become popular among my radio cohorts in anticipation of the show, and was frequently played by student DJs. Though I'm sure I'd heard the album a few times in anticipation for the show, my first real memory of this band comes from standing shoulder to shoulder with some of my closest friends in the packed-to-the-rafters living room of a house that some college students had converted into a radio station almost 50 years earlier.
The band walked on stage – well, walked into the area we had carved out next to the coke machine – with a wide array of acoustic instruments (many of which I still couldn't name), and a small wooden platform could barely fit two people. Beyond microphones to sing into, I don't remember them using any amplification. There was no drum kit, no bass guitar, nothing any traditional band usually kept in their arsenal. Just 4 people, whatever sounds they could make with their mouths, and some strange looking instruments. They started playing, diving into "Acid Rain” with the entire room quietly singing along with them, and when they reached the chorus all four members of the band started stomping on the floor to create a percussive force that locked the band together and propelled the song forward in the same way much in the same way a drummer normally would.
And then the floor started to bow.
Under the weight of however many people were packed into that room, and the force of Saintseneca's ferocious stomps, the living room floor literally began to bend. Worried it might collapse before the concert was over, one of the other directors had to ask the band to refrain from stomping on the floor any further, but for me it was too late. That one little moment had made a larger impression on me than any band I had heard in years.
That night, I bought my copy of “Last,” and it became something of a recurring soundtrack for the rest of my college career. Riding my bike home, hanging out with friends, doing homework, relaxing, falling asleep, waking up, laughing, crying, finding that perfect song to fill a gap in my radio show. “Last,” seemed to fit into every single situation I found myself in over the next two years, and every new context under which I listened to it made me connect to it for a completely new and different reason than before. I still look upon it as a definitive album from my college years, and still find new meaning in it as I get older.
So, as one might expect, I was pretty excited last fall when Saintseneca officially announced their followup to "Last," hauntingly titled “Dark Arc." Beyond getting a whole new group of songs to listen to and grow with, it was exciting to see a band I love signed to a new label (ANTI-) that I knew and respected. I was excited to hear the ways they had changed since "Last" reflected on record, ready to dive into whatever themes they would be exploring on the new record. But I was also kind of frightened, scared that one of my favorite little bands might become unrecognizable from the way they were when I first fell in love with them. “Last” was such a unique record – I still haven't heard many other albums that sound like it that weren’t recorded by the Library of Congress – that any changes they might to the formula which created that sound were somewhat frightening.
Upon hearing "Dark Arc" though, I was relieved to find that Saintseneca seemed to have pulled it off, in a way that is almost unnoticeable. It took me until the full band sound of “Happy Alone” to even realize a drum set was in-play, and it didn't even register that any electric instruments were used on the album until I read the liner notes. The sound of “Dark Arc” feels more like an evolution of the sound on “Last” than a departure from it, in making that change Saintseneca starts to feel even more like a band than a collective of ever changing musicians. In fact, the addition of All Dogs’ Maryn Jones as something of a foil to Little is possibly may be most notable and important change on “Dark Arc," her fragile yet soaring harmonies fitting in perfectly with Saintseneca’s very accessible aesthetic and occasionally stealing the show entirely. Her heartbreaking lead vocals on “Fed Up With Hunger” deliver one of the albums’ most unexpected and poignant moments, while her soaring accompaniment on songs like “Happy Alone” or “Visions” make her a vital and game-changing element within the band.
As expected, the quality of the songs themselves are astonishing. Little had little to prove after the fantastic lyrical quality of “Last,” where he explored themes of identity, feelings of being trapped, social and romantic interactions, existential frustration and teenage escapism through lyrics that often sounded almost biblical in tone. Though “Dark Arc” does not share the spiritual undercurrent of its predecessor, Little’s evolution not just as a lyricist, but as a songwriter is noticeable, creating songs that feel both universal and personal, and delving into themes of love, loss of innocence, humanity, identity, and a search for home. “Swallow all your chewing gum, limp into the setting sun, I for one will not be sung to sleep,” Little sings on “Uppercutter,” perfectly encapsulating feelings of defeat in a way that indicative of his never-too-straightforward, never-too-obtuse songwriting. He has a natural understanding of pop song-form, and knows how to use his bands’ strengths to turn what could have been a good song into a great one.
“Dark Arc” goes beyond being just a collection of well crafted songs however. An album with a capital “A,” the overall composition of the record is astonishingly, with particular attention clearly being paid towards song order. Short, unnamed pieces split the album into 3 distinct suites in which songs ebb and flow into one another beautifully. Listen to the transition from “Only the Young Die Good” into “Takmit” or the way in which lyrics from album opener “Blood Bath” are brought back in “So Longer” and you’ll see the incredible attention to detail the band has payed to the art of the album. In an era of shuffle and individual songs for sale at your local digital warehouse, “Dark Arc” shows us the value of an album as an artistic statement rather than a simple collection of songs.
In case it’s not clear by now, let me be the first to admit that I do have a significant bias towards Saintseneca as a band, and “Dark Arc” as an album. “Last” made such a strong impression on my life that I want to see the band that made it succeed beyond their wildest dreams, and for everyne I know to listen to and appreciate their music. This review is all the proof you need, with the first third being devoted solely to the discussion of my personal relationship to this band, and to the idea of forming relationships with music as a whole. Should a reviewer who is so strongly biased towards a band really be taken seriously when naming one of their albums as one of the best 3 albums of the year?
In this case, the short answer is yes. “Dark Arc” is far too fantastic of an album for this review be tainted by my bias towards the band that made it. It would be a contender for album of the year if I’d never heard of Saintseneca in my life. Its lyrical complexity, its focus on the album as an art form, its deep and meaningful exploration of universal yet complex aspects of the human condition, all of these things come together to make an album that – though not perfect – is far superior than the sum of its individual parts (and to anything many other “indie-folk” groups have released in years). This is an album you can grow old to, an album that’s meaning will change based on where you are in your life. Saintseneca is ready to form a connection with their listeners, and with “Dark Arc” they’ve found another beautiful way to do so.