The longtime collaboration between The Mars Volta’s Juan Alderete and singer-songwriter Lisa Papineau (well known for contributing vocals to M83), Big Sir’s minimal setup harbors a complex atmosphere that is eerie, yet absolutely intriguing. The duo retains that quality in their latest release Before Gardens After Gardens, the group’s third studio album.
Album opener “Regions” begins with Alderete’s distinguishable bass playing, as Papineau quietly coos overhead. The orchestral sounds that accompany Alderete and Papineau only add to the song’s haunting demeanor, segueing into the more upbeat “Ready On the Line.”
“Get so high,” sings Papineau over hip-hop whistles and bells in “Ready On the Line,” the song’s melody so memorable and infectious that you can’t help but hum it. The shrill scream that comes from Papineau towards the end of the song is brilliant and emphatic, as if the vocalist has overcome some unspoken challenge that calls for celebration.
“Old Blood” starts off with a buzzing, menacing guitar that battles against Alderete’s distorted fuzz-bass, with Papineau caught in between. “One, two, three, four, five,” says Papineau monotonously, the countdown unleashing a barrage of Bjork-like eeriness and forceful drums. Both songs showcase Papineau and Alderete’s admiration and respect for one another. They both feed off of each other: if one is silent and reserved, the other follows behind, ascending and descending with intensity simultaneously.
Before Gardens After Gardens finds success in its simplified approach. The album retains a Miles Davis, “less is more” mentality, allowing songs and the ideas that accompany them to flourish and breathe. The guest features on the album add to its mystique, from The Mars Volta’s Cedric Bixler-Zavala and Deantoni Parks to Beastie Boys collaborator Money Mark Ramos-Nishita. Each contributor’s part serves as a small piece to Big Sir’s enthralling puzzle.
Although the album is often dark and somber, there are undertones of celebration underneath it all. As Papineau states on the band’s website, Before Gardens After Gardens is an album of “dance and celebration in death’s insistent embrace,” serving as a testament to the unknown, and an optimistic acceptance of it.