At its core, the myth of a happy childhood is a right-wing concept. We’re all supposed to look back nostalgically on a past that, for the majority of us, never existed, so that for old times’ sake we can allow a corrupt and outdated system that ruled back then to keep us down. If we aren’t all fondly reminiscing over hazy memories of lazy summer days, we’re somehow invalidated: we’re inferior to those who can. That’s the cornerstone of another far more evil myth, that there’s a blithely deserving class of people running the show and others less content left to do their dirty work.
The reality about childhood, from a global perspective, is something Pat Benatar sang about: Hell is for children. Then again, she also sang “Hell is for hell,” over and over again. Which, when you think about it, kind of makes sense. And is why Pat Benatar is camp, while Sarah Kirkland Snider‘s lavish double gatefold vinyl album Unremembered – streaming at Bandcamp – is a powerful and important art-rock record. It’s more of a vision of horror and terror than the personal experience of pain and torment, although those are both present in places.
With its relentless, aching atmospherics, Snider’s 2010 Penelope suite – a fearlessly feminist look at the toll war takes on the home front- earned her all sorts of high marks in the indie classical world. Her latest album is more of a rock record, like My Brightest Diamond with a slower pace and a rotating cast of singers. Which also makes sense, since MBD’s Shara Worden shares lead vocals and dazzling counterpoint with a couple of her Asthmatic Kitty housemates, songwriter DM Stith and Clogs’ Padma Newsome. Snider takes a lyric cycle by Nathaniel Bellows, chronicling a literally haunted Massachusetts upbringing, and sets it to a luminous, often otherworldly, brilliantly individualistic score played by a crack studio orchestra conducted by Edwin Outwater.
As the opening Prelude gets underway, swooping reverb-drenched vocal harmonies rise, introducing a tensely trilling suspense theme. “They circled round my head,” Worden intones coolly and enigmatically underneath. The voices diverge in counterpoint and then return, setting the stage for the rest of the record.
The ensemble segues into The Estate’s shivery, reverbtoned woodwind cadenzas beneath stately vocals and acoustic guitar. It has Snider’s trademark allusiveness but also an anthemic sensibility within the vertiginous swirl of orchestra and disembodied voices.
As The Barn opens, Worden whispers, “You are not alone, not alone, not yet,” then the orchestral stormclouds burst. It has a tumbling, percussive drive and a narrative that might involve an abduction. The Guest has more of a nebulous atmosphere and baroque vocal interplay: ‘She left our house in the dead of night, my sister went to find her, we did not know why she left, “ Worden explains, and the story grows more ominous from there.
The Slaughterhouse is surprisingly allusive as well: Snider waits til halfway through the song to develop a hypnotically circling piano motif to raise the horror level to the rafters. The menace rises higher with The Girl, an Elizabethan waltz with klezmer chromatics and echoey ascending motives filtering through the mix: it’s one of the most nonchalantly chilling, Lynchian pieces here. As is The Swan, with its blend of shifting sheets of sound and eerily minimalist Satie-esque piano, another vision of dread and death that’s bloodcurdling in its nonchalance. The Witch, the album’s most epic and gothically stylized track, circles around a creepy music-box horror riff.
The River is a surrealistically enveloping mashup of Portishead trip-hop,. broodingly offcenter cinematic ambience and coldly playful vocalese straight out of John Zorn. The Speakers, with its roomful of menacingly anthropomorphosed objects, is even more surreal, even as it’s one of the most straightforward anthems here.
For all the ambitious, Carl Nielsen-class orchestration bursting in from every corner of the sonic picture, The Orchard capsulizes how Snider works: artfully lavish arrangements, simple and catchy rock hooks. The circular variations of The Song make it the most indie classical-oriented track here. The album winds up in a wintry whirl of voices, woodwinds and reverb with The Past. something Newsome’s gracefully mannered character clearly has not made peace with, and all indications are he probably won’t. It’s the most extreme memories, for better or worse, that we carry with us.