Whale Fall is a band formed in Los Angeles who has been around since 2008, but they did not release their first album until 2011. Their sophomore effort, The Madrean also took about three years to complete, as it was released in December 2014. Given the complexity of song composition, harmonizing and production, however, this amount of time between releases seems more than reasonable. Whale Fall would probably identify with dream pop and shoegazer rock as generic styles, but more specifically they seek to create the feelings and sounds of the desert in their music.
An all-instrumental band, each member of Whale Fall grew up in one of arid part of the southwest: Colorado, Nevada, California and New Mexico. It is clear that their respective upbringings in western desert or mountainous climes influenced all the members of the group in some way. Their 2011 self-titled album is a bit subtle, but the elements are there, mostly in the guitars which create a wispy, windswept ambiance. A little of keyboardist J-Matt Greenberg’s Charles Mingus-inspired coronet also comes into play on the first album. In fact, Whale Fall has an unexpected but very prevalent jazz element to their music, mostly due to Greenberg’s keys and Aaron Farinelli’s drums.
The Madrean region covers a large area in the American southwest from the Mojave Desert and Joshua Tree National Park right up to the Sierra Madre Occidental. “Madrean” is usually used in reference to topography and vegetation found in the area, mostly cacti and other succulents including the legendary Joshua Tree and the prickly pear. By naming their second album after this region, Whale Fall definitely wants to be clear about the desert’s role in their sound. Growing up in these windswept, dry and quiet spaces obviously had a profound effect on the band and their sound.
Whale Fall goes so far as to name the part each instrument plays in creating the sounds of the desert on The Madrean. The dueling guitars played by Ali Vanzin and Dave Pomeranz are meant to represent the stark contrast between earth and sky in the Madrean region, while J-Matt Greenberg’s keyboards and coronet are meant to provide the feelings the plantlife and animals of the desert emote as they punctuate the vast landscape. The band then equates Erik Tolke’s bass and Aaron Farinelli’s drums as the bedrock and tectonic plates which slide and glide underfoot in this region.
From a musical standpoint, Vanzin and Pomeranz’s guitars sound to be influenced by grunge and early shoegazer bands like Hum and Sponge, and Greenberg’s keys and coronet have an even more definitive jazz bent on this album than on the first. The coronet also adds southwestern appeal from the Mexican and Spanish Colonial flavor Greenberg adapts with his Mangione-like technique.
The album is meant to be listened to all at once, as all of the songs are connected and flow into each other. Each song tells a different story which is also a chapter in the larger story the full album tells. It is almost impossible to try to summarize each story as there is so much to each song. The emotive and highly musical quality of the entire album shows how passionately these musicians in Whale Fall feel about the Madrean region, and they are solely focused on connoting those feelings, sounds and vistas in this special desert area of North America.
Tahquitz, the album’s third song, is just one example of the depth and level of craftsmanship to which Whale Fall has gone to create a vivid picture of the American Southwest. This song is the most blatantly dream pop on the album, almost to the point that it ventures into experimental and post-rock territory. This is mostly achieved by the wall of sound effect created by the guitars, bass and keys, but it is done with the old west theme always in mind. The guitar riff in itself is actually a deconstructed Spanish/Moorish tune, and Greeberg’s coronet is heavy on the Latin influence. A jazz saxophone also comes in on this track, and this addition creates an esoteric effect which builds into an almost Middle Eastern-sounding tune. The musical equivalent of a dust storm in New Mexico comes to mind here as all these elements build slowly and dramatically into beautiful chaos. The key changes from minor to major at the end of the song, and one can almost picture the storm finally fading out as the sun sets over the rocks of the desert.
The best way to understand The Madrean is to just listen. The emotion and imagery Whale Fall has achieved without the help of lyrics speaks to their skill as musicians as well as their deep feelings about their music and the region where they all grew up. Whale Fall has created an album which reminds listeners of the timeless qualities of both music and of nature. Listeners who have never experienced the beauty and eerie peacefulness of the American high desert will get to experience it here in sound form courtesy of Whale Fall. The Madrean can be downloaded or purchased as a physical album on Bandcamp. The links can be found below in “Sources.”
Review by Layla Klamt