Sometimes you hear an album and it just sweeps you away. New Zealand band Pull Down the Sun’s Of Valleys and Mountains is the latest album to fall into my lap for review, and so there’s no way I should be writing this. I have several other reviews I should be writing. And yet… And yet, this album is so entrancing and enchanting, that I can’t stop listening to it. I recommended it to a friend, who I know shares my taste, and she declared it “So.Damn.Good. Top 2020 for sure.” At this stage, I find it very hard to disagree. The music is as impressive as the artwork, and the artwork is fabulous. Being a Kiwi, and an ex-pat Kiwi at that, the artwork possibly resonates more with me, as does the music. That was part of the reason for seeking an opinion from my like-minded friend, since she has no ties to New Zealand. Her enthusiasm allows me to believe my love for this album is not from any nationalist nostalgia or patriotic bias.
I particularly love the way Pull Down the Sun integrate Māori myth into their music – albeit in a way similar to fellow Aotearoa band Outside In integrated the story of Siddhartha into Karmatrain, creating a framework by which to tell their own story. Even the name of the band instantly evokes for any Kiwi the story of “How Māui Slowed the Sun”. Every Kiwi grew up on the myths and legends of Māui, Tāne, and others. So the imagery the music evokes may well be different for those familiar with the tales, but is no less magic for those who are not (if the experiences of my friend are anything to go on).
The album begins with a short instrumental piece, Aka. Aka is the Māori word for vines, so I immediately assume this refers to the plaited flax ropes that Māui and his brothers used to… well, pull down the Sun. It’s haunting and plaintive and beautiful. Hints of taonga pūoro and birdsong, and a rhythm like a heartbeat that suddenly stops as we arrive at Whare Ra (the house of the Sun). This is almost another instrumental, and the sole lyrics describe the music aptly – as it flows, and grows. It just builds and builds, with wave upon wave of delicious heaviness. Towards the end, the chugging turns into a more melodic post-rock vibe, before the heaviness returns, and the lyrics are chanted with scorching intensity.
The title track pounds in, with a distinctly Gojira vibe. Any fans of that band will surely love this track, and it is very impressive! This song distinctly reminds me of the myth of Ranginui and Pa-patūānuku (Rangi, the Sky Father, and Papa, the Earth Mother), but whether this is the intent of the band, I am not sure. The chugging continues on Tūrehu (a strange, mythical, pale-skinned race of magical beings – fairy folk, if you will), but in an almost stoner groove, and with a glorious choral finale. The way the band do not stick to one style is one of the greatest aspects of this album, with a fresh sound around every corner. The final sparse notes of Tūrehu are beautiful in their simplicity.
I assumed from the title, that Light in Water might have been a return to the tales of Māui, who was descended from the god of Light, and who was born premature and cast into the ocean by his mother, where the waves formed him into a living baby. But the lyrics don’t really seem to reflect this. Regardless, despite its short length, this is a slow-burning beauty of a track – almost working more as in interlude between the two heavy monsters either side of it, but still more than holding its own. And did I say monsters? Because Weta is a monster. The weta is one of just a few birds and insects named in the myth of Tāne’s battle with Whiro, and though it has its admirers, is not renowned for its beauty. It’s musical equivalent has a suitably ugly groove, and it churns and chugs, and generally delights.
After getting down and dirty with Weta, the change in tone with Kēhua is incredibly impactful. This is an delightfully melodic piece, once more with a post-rock vibe. Kēhua are ghosts – and yet if this music is meant to be haunting, these kēhua are clearly not malevolent. The first half of the track gives more impression of a guardian spirit, than of haunting. The track changes gear, and becomes distinctly heavier, and perhaps a little darker – but although it does become quite frenzied at one point, it still never seems particularly menacing. The opening screams of Utu, therefore, come as quite a surprise. Almost a jump scare, in fact.
Utu is one of the more well-known Māori words, and also one of the more misunderstood. It is most commonly understood to mean revenge, but utu is more about balance and reciprocity. Obviously, revenge is one way of restoring balance, but to describe all utu as revenge misconstrues the concept somewhat. The lyrics for me seem to intimate suicide (though, of course, I could be well off-base), and this would make sense – as historically suicide was one way of gaining utu. This, for me, is the darkest and heaviest song on the album. It’s an absolute highlight, and easily one of my favourite moments, but I’m sure glad the whole album doesn’t mine these depths! There’s some absolutely incendiary guitar (pulling down the Sun again?) at one point, that I love.
And then Utu suddenly ends, leaving its heaviness echoing in my brain, as Oro begins with its watery sounds. Totally appropriate, since oro is an echo. I really love this piece, and it does a good job of recreating the ambience of the opening track, Aka, which had a similar length. The heartbeat is back, too, albeit in a more subdued and subtle manner. As with the opening instrumental, Oro segues into the next track, although Ngaro is not the beast that Whare Ra was. This feels like the most positive song on the album, and it soars. It’s the most radio friendly, too, and has single written all over it. (It’s not been released as a single so far, with the title track and Tūrehu getting that honour.) Ngaro has several meanings in Māori, but I’m choosing to take it as a fly. Why? Well, because when Māui was discovered washed up by the sea, he was covered in flies. Flies can represent the life or spirit of a person. It also ties it back to Weta, as this song with an insect title (if that’s what it is, which I realise I am only inferring) is the antithesis to that one – as light as Weta was dark.
Salt of the Earth provides the comedown after Ngaro’s flight, and then we’re left with a final prayer, Inoi. The former has a Blindspott meets Deftones growl, before falling away into a quite contrasting keyboard coda. The latter then builds the intensity back up, and hits with another slab of Gojira-like heaviness. It’s an unexpected turn, after the more melodic pairing of Ngaro and Salt of the Earth, but entirely satisfying. And, of course, with a ten minute length, there is plenty of opportunity to change the sound up, and halfway through this is exactly what happens. This is a wonderfully expansive piece, and a perfect closing number to what will surely remain one of my favourite releases from this year. I can’t believe my ears.
[You can read Nick’s interview with Koert Wegman from Pull Down the Sun HERE.]
01. Aka (1:31)
02. Whare Ra (5:13)
03. Of Valleys and Mountains (4:29)
04. Tūrehu (5:10)
05. Light in Water (2:48)
06. Weta (5:05)
07. Kēhua (5:23)
08. Utu (4:51)
09. Oro (1:41)
10. Ngaro (5:41)
11. Salt of the Earth (8:21)
12. Inoi (10:29)
Total Time – 60:42
Koert Wegman – Guitar, Keys, Vocals
Jason Healey – Guitar
Stefan Bourke – Drums
Record Label: Independent
Country of Origin: New Zealand / Aotearoa
Date of Release: 12th September 2020