My introduction to SEIMS was their incredible third album, 3, which had the most intriguing premise for a concept album I may have ever encountered – setting out to capture the CMYK colour model (Cyan, Magenta, and Yellow) in sound. Thus the ‘3’ of the album title doesn’t just refer to it being the third SEIMS release, but to the album’s first three tracks, each of which exist self-sufficiently. The quite brilliant trick of 3 (the album), though, is that when the three individual tracks Cyan, Magenta, and Yellow are mixed together, they create the fourth track Imperfect Black (the ‘K’ in CMYK). Using themes and riffs from the previous tracks in a final number is not without precedent, of course, but I don’t think I’ve ever heard it done like this before. Quite frankly, the album blew me away when I first heard it, and it was easily one of my favourite releases from 2017. At the time, I shared my thoughts on the album concluding with the query of how they might possibly follow it up. The answer was an accompanying EP the following year, called 3.1, that revealed the difference between Imperfect Black and Absolute Black.
This year sees another original concept album from the Australian band, with the perhaps predictable title FOUR. The concept this time is communication, and how so much can be communicated (or, alternately, mis-communicated) without words. Thus the album is almost entirely without vocals, but over the years there have been numerous studies undertaken which all agree that the majority of communication is non-verbal. Depending on what you read, the percentage of communication that is non-verbal is anywhere between 70 and 90 per cent – so it makes sense that FOUR can successfully translate the various nuances of communication into music in the same way they did the CMYK colour model. Now, I say they, but SEIMS is essentially Simeon Bartholomew and whomever he happens to have with him at the time – although Chris Allison has now been along for the ride for a while (indeed, I have always assumed that SEIMS is a nickname for Simeon). Earlier SEIMS releases have been performed entirely by Simeon, but one of the most wonderful characteristics of 3 and FOUR is the sheer amount of extra instrumentation brought in by additional performers, and the brass and strings of 3 provide even more impact on FOUR, and right from the off too!
The Mountain’s Lullaby could easily throw off a lot of listeners, sounding more like chamber music than the jazzy math and post-rock SEIMS fans are used to. That said, it’s decidedly twisted chamber music that, if it’s a lullaby, is one sung in the context of a horror film. It crescendos in discordant swirls towards a glorious hanging climax that is in equal parts beautiful and uncomfortable. The Pursuit of Intermediate Happiness is positively Crimsonesque: SEIMS has always been unpredictable and surprising, but with FOUR they really pull out all the stops. It’s not until third track, Showdown Without A Victim, that something more closely resembling past SEIMS sounds makes an appearance – and it’s also one of the most effective tracks on the album in expressing the theme of communication.
Even without vocals, you can hear the showdown as two protagonists verbally spar with each other. It’s the sound of an argument, with both voices trying to make themselves heard, neither willing to back down, until we reach a peaceful point that is almost a denouement, except there is no resolution. It’s an absolutely stunning bridge because of the way the battling sounds drop away, and because it seems as if it is a denouement and coda. But, like so many arguments in real life, it doesn’t end because one person has “won”, but because both people have run out of steam. Whether they have realised that one of them was right, or perhaps even that both of them were wrong, neither really knows how to give up their opinions, and the final passage that the bridge leads into is neither a return to argument nor an agreement. There is no resolution, but sometimes life is like that. A showdown with neither a victim nor a victor.
Shouting at a Brick Wall is another track that wonderfully expresses its title in music, full of frustration, tension and futility. The gentle beginnings belie the aggression that follows, and when it hits, it hits hard. I envision this being a favourite track for many. Of course, it helps that everyone has felt like they’re shouting at a brick wall before (including, I’m sure, the two protagonists of the previous track), and so it’s hard not to feel empathy when listening to this. But then again, this is underselling how brilliant the composition of the track is, that the feelings evoked are so strongly reminiscent of actual feelings we have all experienced, in order to allow us to feel empathy. I love the violence of the strings, and then when the brass kicks in, it’s simply sublime. I only wish the track didn’t end so abruptly at this point, as I could so happily continue to listen for a much longer time. However, as is the case whenever one is shouting at a brick wall, one gets to the point where there’s nothing left to do but give up and walk away – and viewed from the outside, it’s probably always this abrupt.
While the majority of FOUR is instrumental, two tracks have vocals. Biting Tongues, by its title, is a track you might expect to be instrumental, but is one of those two. That’s not too odd, though, when I think about it, as I’m well aware that when I know I really should bite my tongue is often when I find it impossible to keep the thoughts in my head unspoken. I love the way the vocals are almost whispered, as when someone says what they know they shouldn’t it’s often under their breath. It’s the best compromise you can take, when you want to bite your tongue but just can’t stop yourself. As such, this is an incredibly effective piece of aural passive aggression. By the end of the song, though, all passivity is gone and it’s all out aggression, the vocals full of vitriol. The guitar solo is amazing, but that fade-out is frustrating as hell!
The other track with vocals is The Mountain’s Scream, which bookends the album wonderfully with The Mountain’s Lullaby and finally makes sense of the hanging climax of the lullaby. Listen to them back to back and hear how the lullaby turns into a scream. If this were instrumental it would have been just as appropriate, as any parent knows how a child can go from a peaceful state to one of extreme agitation – and often that agitation comes from not having the words to explain what they want or need. But the lyrics express a greater existential dread than a child’s lack of vocabulary, and the video has a cataclysmic feel that declares this is the final track in more than one sense. The Mountain’s Scream is easily one of the most remarkable and impressive SEIMS tracks ever. Which leaves me asking myself the same question I did after 3: how the heck will SEIMS top this? And yet, I have no doubt they will…
01. The Mountain’s Lullaby (2:00)
02. The Pursuit of Intermediate Happiness (3:57)
03. Showdown Without a Victim (5:59)
04. Shouting at a Brick Wall (4:16)
05. Stranded, Isolated (5:54)
06. Elegance Over Confidence (4:04)
07. Biting Tongues (5:06)
08. Nuance Lost in Translation (4:22)
09. Understatement (2:02)
10. The Mountain’s Scream (6:23)
Total Time – 44:03
Simeon Bartholomew – Basses, Guitars, Synthesisers, Piano, Vocals
Chris Allison – Drums, Percussion
Kat Hunter – Vocals, Violin
Susie Bishop – Violin
Monique Mezzatesta – Violas
Peter Hollo – Cellos
Thomas Botting – Double Basses
Paul Murchison – Flugelhorns, Trombone, Trumpet
Paul Meo – Trumpet
Victor Valdes – Harp
Record Label: Art As Catharsis
Country of Origin: Australia
Date of Release: 22nd October 2021