Album Review: Drowse - Cold Air
Drowse is the moniker of Portland-based artist Kyle Bates, who has a history of dealing with mental issues and the side-effects that come from trying to treat them with drugs (both prescription and non). He has turned this insular experience into Cold Air, a harrowing and yet decidedly beautiful album of shoegaze-glossed slowcore compositions.
For much of the last few years of his life, and for the recording of Cold Air, Bates was holed up inside his home, which has become both the setting for the album and an instrument within it. With an album like this, ripe in atmosphere and back story, it seems natural to ascribe a certain narrative to its arc. This is encouraged by the opening track, ‘Small Sleep’, which begins the album with a mesh of twinkling instrumentation and field recordings, giving the impression of stepping through a mystical fog, somehow crossing an immaterial border into the grounds of Bates’ reality. It ends with the sounds of footsteps crunching up a driveway, and you can picture the house looming up out of this mist as you approach and enter. This is the draughty, lonely and eerie enclosure that you’re being invited to inhabit during Cold Air’s 45 minutes – although it could feel like days with all the aural hallucinogens and psychotic breakdowns captured within.
An amorphous impressionistic story blooms from there. ‘Quickening’ is the eager introduction to the house, like Bates sitting up to attention now that he has a rare guest. It’s by no means loud or energetic, but for Drowse it’s practically pop. Guitars oscillate steadily with his almost-audible vocals cresting comfortably atop them, hints of backing vocals from Maya Stoner acting like the house’s creaking – or maybe the chattering of its resident spirits. Once the excitement of a new entry to his environment has died down, so does he, settling into his dreariness to self-reflect. In ‘(Body)’ we get a chilling sample of his friend describing finding him in a catatonic mental episode and dragging him out to her car to rush to the hospital; these crop up throughout the album, like Bates shamefully dragging them to his consciousness and examining them for self-flagellation. It seems like a relief when the wailing and sparkling ‘Rain Leak’ takes flight, and he can distract himself with some menial task that will keep him outside his own head for a while. Bespeckled with glints like cold white light refracting off of the raindrops, and guitars writhing like aching muscles, ‘Rain Leak’ is an engrossing depiction of lethargic mania.
Of course, before long, the need for medication sneaks in. ‘Klonopin’ is part ode to the drug, part warning of its dangers. It starts on radiant guitar plucks, Stoner and Bates harmonising subtly, sunlight snatches through clouds, pains slip away as the body is levitated up to meet the sun rays' caress. The trip takes its inevitable downward curve towards the end, dark and depressing layers oozing their way between the psyche and the spiritual culmination that seemed momentarily within grasp. Unsurprisingly the next song is ‘Death Thought’ (with a stop off for another reminiscence of mental breakdown on ‘(Bedroom)’), which, true to its name, is morose and grey. Despite it being a largely ambient track without any loud elements, it’s still desperately heavy, like depression’s invisible weight sitting upon your chest, forcing you to stay in bed.
’Two Faces’ sees him rising up out of his apathy to look into the outside world, catching a reflection of himself in the misty glass. It’s like a reminder of the life that’s slipping away from him, and the guitars on ‘Two Faces’ interlock like duelling beasts, one fighting for him to escape his drug-imposed solitude, the other willing him to give in to it. As ever in Drowse’s music, the winner of this contest is indeterminate. Unsurprisingly after this exertion, we’re laid down under a soft layer of guitars in ‘Put Me To Sleep’. From there we experience Bates’ dreams; ‘Knowing’ playing out as the most liberated song in the collection, the weight of the real world lifted and in its place the lightness and peace of accepting that you’ll never know everything, rendered through high floating vocals and spiralling instrumentation.
‘(Person)’ is inserted as the final interstitial song, penultimate on the album, almost like a little moment in between sleep and wakefulness when Bates is returning to terrestrial existence. Cold Air finishes on the 9-minute ‘Shower’; Bates waking up to another new day and stepping into the warm stream for an extended soak. Whether, while he’s in there, he’s coming to an epiphany that will lead to a healthier and more social life is debatable; the instrumentation tumbles down with a heedless glory and sprays out with slow-motion vigour morphing into sheets of feedback. It sounds like a mental escape, but it could all be ephemeral. It could turn out that once out of the shower, the draughty air, leaking rooves and supply of prescription drugs prove to be overwhelming and he is set to live another day in his gloom. Thus, we live through Cold Air again, once more investing ourselves in its aura, rolling ourselves up in its thick and weighty atmosphere, passively enjoying the snatches of beauty and swathes of humanity peeking out, dreaming of one day breaking out into that waiting world.
This article was originally published on The 405 - 16th March 2018.