9.1 BEST NEW RECORD
self-released / 2016
At the edges of the title track from Even Oxen's new album Arrayed Above the Seraphim Lights, you can hear the rain as it beats down on the hood of Bersain Beristain's truck, where he recorded the song in a single take at 2 in the morning. It was a couple months ago in April, and the rainstorm rolling in was the first of a series that would flood his town of Houston, washing cars from highways and swallowing homes - semi-apocalyptic scenes strangely consonant with an album so fixated on the Book of Revelation. Yet instead of assuming the grimness so often associated with Revelation, Beristain explores The Apocalypse of John with wonder, adoration, and expectancy, creating a record that is remarkable not just for the audacity of its vision, but also for its purity.
22-year-old Bersain Beristain made his debut as Even Oxen last year with an uncompromisingly experimental self-titled EP, and the full-length Arrayed fulfills that promise and more, with a kaleidoscopic eight tracks that run from chamber instrumentals to tuneful freak folk to vivid experimental soundscapes. The first of those soundscapes is the album's brief opener "Our Messiah Flying with the Clouds Toward Heaven", which soundtracks the glory and terror of Christ's return with textured electric guitar submerged in a riptide of static, with dissonant squeals that recall the bracing ambient works of Jefre Cantu-Ledesma.
"Our Messiah" leads directly into "Luma", a psych-folk gem that finds Beristain longing for that same return: "Jesus my Lord/If only the wait wasn't long/Or even if your Spirit would stay and sing me a song". The wild, double-tracked vocals, heavily strummed acoustic guitar and ultra-lo-fi sound here make comparisons to early-period Animal Collective easy, but it's Beristain's ear for unconventional but infectious melodies that really locates him in the lineage of Panda Bear and co.
Neutral Milk Hotel is another crystal-clear influence. The woozy love song "My, My, My" has Beristain cresting and swooping down the backs of his words, Mangum-like, while "Your Baileys of Water" barrels forward on urgent strums of speaker-blowing guitar that echo the more frantic tracks on In the Aeroplane Over the Sea.
If the axiom about technical constraints acting as creative fuel is true, it goes a long way toward explaining Arrayed Above the Seraphim Lights' tremendous quality. Equipped with an ancient laptop that would lag and often delete portions of audio while recording, Beristain laid down half the album on his cell phone, laboriously emailing segments to himself, converting each one, and mixing on the computer. But for an album this low-tech, the sonic breadth is massive, especially on the nearly 12-minute avant-garde instrumental "The Dragon on the Shore by the Sea". Inspired by the scene with the woman and her child in Revelation 12, the track opens with a radiant bath of guitar and keys that's positively beatific, before transforming jarringly into an all-out aural assault that symbolizes the dragon's appearance and subsequent pursuit of the two. The percussion in this section - created entirely with a 5-gallon jug loaded with quarters - is brutal, and the song approaches the tooth-rattling intensity of recent Swans as it progresses, with chaotic blasts of feedback and a recorder wailing insanely in the background.
The aforementioned title track, recorded in the artist's truck during a rainstorm, ends the record. It's a raw acoustic paean that starts with Beristain lamenting his own depravity ("Never could I love a Gentile or Israel with these bones") before finding solace that "in your everlasting love/You held out your body and rose/Lifting me up to be arrayed above the seraphim lights with you" - and when he sings those last two words, "with you", his yowl is so impassioned and tremulous that you might think the tape was warping if you didn't know the recording was digital. Again, Beristain doesn't ignore Revelation's cosmic comeuppance, but it's clear that the parts of the book that fascinate him most are the mind-melting descriptions of God's glory, his holy throne room, and the ecstatic worship offered to him there. And amazingly, what he accomplishes with Arrayed Above the Seraphim Lights is to bring a taste of that heavenly noise here to earth.