Album Review: Brief Candles - Retreater

Being a part of a band, but also having a life outside of it—like real Monday through Friday jobs and families and whatnot—means that band stuff can move at a little slower of a pace in comparison to if it was a top priority.

Milwaukee-based shoegazers Brief Candles have not been inactive since their last full-length effort, 2011’s Fractured Days; the group just moves at the pace that real life allots them to. They tour when they can—somewhat regularly hitting major cities throughout the Midwest and East Coast, as well as a short trip abroad in 2015; and in 2013, they did release the Newhouse EP.

The group, co-fronted by Jenifer and Kevin Dixon, began work on its fourth LP in the spring of 2016, going so far as to release “Provisions” as an advance single. After a very long gestation period (maybe longer than intended), that album has arrived, and Retreater finds the four-piece blurring the lines between post-punk, shoegaze, and dream pop in an effort to create a sound that is vibrant and contemporary, all while paying homage to the bands from the past that influenced them.

A relatively slim 10-song album, Retreater is also the band’s most concise—clocking in at 40 minutes. Throughout, you can hear the band creating material that focuses more on pop sensibilities and accessibilities, as well as descending into the cacophony and dissonant moments that have been trademarks of their lengthy career—and at times, both appear in the same song, like on “Downstream,” the track that begins the album’s second half. It’s powered by alternating sequences of a chugging, My Bloody Valentine-esq torrent of distortion with a shimmering jounce, creating a stark juxtaposition.

Retreater begins with the rollicking gallop of the fuzzed-out “A Way Around,” a song that rides a surprising synthesizer wave as one of its main means of instrumentation—the other is a shimmering little guitar lick that comes in during the refrain; this is followed by the equally as bass-heavy (though less fuzzy), rhythmically punky “Appearences.” Back to back like this, the songs create a very strong, one-two punch to open the album on an up-tempo, and uncharacteristically less-shoegazey note.

However, the band quickly slides back into their dreamy, woozy, shoegazey theatrics on the cacophonic “Tiramisu”—a song that, like the aforementioned “Downstream,” follows the quiet/loud/quiet structure of more melodious verses, followed by a pummeling wall of noise during the refrain. It, again, boasts impressive and noticeable low end provided by bassist Drew Calvetti; rarely do you actually notice the bassline in a shoegaze song, so hearing that rumble rising and falling underneath the layers of guitar is refreshing.

Last year, when I reviewed the single “Provisions,” I mentioned that it sounded like: “Rather Ripped-era Sonic Youth—balancing a delicate contrast between reserved, distended, rhythmic guitar chugging and fuzzed out bass with sharp blasts of chaos and dissonance within its final moments.”

Over a year and a half later, that is still an accurate assessment—it’s also one of a small handful of moments on Retreater that reach the visceral and unhinged space that Brief Candles are capable of tapping into—best exemplified on Fracture Days’ centerpiece, “Small Streets.” Here, the late arriving titular track and “Imperfect Sound Forever” lean slightly into that territory as they both feature moments where it seems like everything is on the verge of falling apart, though the group manages to keep it all together, riding it out until the end.

Retreater ends on a relatively restrained note with “Mourning House,” one of the album’s dreamiest moments—it serves as a fine closing track, however it is not as confrontational or attention grabbing as They Live, We Sleep’s epic finale “Half Truth.”

That focus on reserve and restraint, while leaning more into the dreamier and post-punkier side of the genres, makes Retreater a different kind of album when compared to its predecessors. Though still vibrant and interesting, peppered with some jarring bursts of energy, it arrives as a slightly less immediate listen—one that may take a few listens through to unpack and find where, if you’re a long time listener, fit in. This new focus, too, may come from the group’s maturity—well over a decade since the group issued its self-titled debut (and slightly over a decade since They Live, We Sleep) the band may be easing into possibly less noisy, less dissonant, but incredibly infectious sound.

Retreater is out now as a digital download directly from the band. They are currently on tour, selling it on cassette, along with a new t-shirt that comes with the download coupon. Merchandise will be on their Bandcamp page following the tour.