A chilling spray

Sailing the brooding waters of the Baltic Sea
By SAM PFEIFLE  |  July 30, 2008
THE BALTIC SEA: are accomplished experimenters.

Those of us desperate to escape the singles-saturation our MP3 existence has thrust upon the modern musical landscape and return to album rock now have a band we can get behind — the Baltic Sea. Their debut effort, Through Scenic Heights and Days Regrets, lives up to all of the bombast that title might promise. It’s a dense and well-orchestrated effort that touches on the best of prog-rock, hardcore, radio rock, and slo-core.

Fronted by Todd Hutchisen, one of the mildest-mannered long-time personalities on the Portland music scene, the band are in some ways an amalgamation of his two best-known collaborations — the frenetic and heavy Twitchboy (now deceased) and the narcotic and beautiful Seekonk, neither of which were/are really his band. The music is simplistic, but just when the Baltic Sea threaten to get heavy, a whole bunch of pretty slaps you right in the face. Or perhaps it’s the other way around.

Ray Suhy, another long-time local (perhaps best known for his work in Colepitz, a band I mispronounced early and often, but they could really rip through you), handles lead-guitar work here, and his playing winds up being the band’s melodic lifeblood, a blending of rock riffage and jazz phrasing. Though there are extended instrumental breaks offered through songs that reach past six minutes in half the time, they’re not frenetic metal or blue-based rock solos; they’re compact musical thoughts recycled and blended to fuel soaring emotional highs and idle depressions.

The attention to detail here is maniacal. Every song seeming to inhabit the same musical aesthetic without ever repeating anything. The transition between “Monswoon” and “Parallax” begins with a vocal track in each channel, high and delicate, with just the barest of backings, the last of which is the click-clack of a typewriter, with differing rhythms left and right, delivering a particularly eerie effect. Finally, there is nothing but the typewriter, bleeding through the songs, welcoming Jeremy Smith’s thick bass, a chilly guitar, and Hutchisen’s moody lyrics: “Dwelling thoughts loom/He wonders, he wonders.”

Later, “Carpenter” is a sub-three-minute deep breath, with a cymbal wash moving into something like a theremin wail paired with an echoing piano — like the soundtrack to Beauty and the Beast as directed by Tim Burton. It’s lovely and disturbing.

In “Cry Aloud (Then Explain),” we’re told “The length and width of it/It overcomes us all,” and it’s as if the Baltic Sea are trying to describe their ambition in a couplet, just as they suck the listener into their world with a touch of tape hiss to make you feel close. On a disc this finely produced (Jon Wyman’s behind the board), the flaws are very much on purpose. By the time the female French-spoken vocals enter, like Belle and Sebastian’s Boy with the Arab Strap, we’re ready for them to figure it all out in an instrumental break that opens up like every log’s on the fire, soaring and euphoric.

It’s a bit of a shame that you often can’t make out Hutchisen’s vocals. His words are extended and slurred and the vocal tracks are often mixed low. The lyrics are thoughtful and could make more of an impact. But they always support the song’s feel and tone.

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