Like many records released this year, Mechanics of Dominion is permeated with the looming shadow of apocalypse. The violins on “The Space In Between” are the cold eyes of the past focusing in on 2017 as a pivotal moment in our planet’s intractable suffering. The drones on “Que Se Vayan Todos” and the upright bass on the title track also remind us of the dark portents of Esmerine’s newest opus. No matter how mathematically and compositionally sound the record is, it’s still impossibly heavy and pretty, casting its drama in a thick haze of intermittent drums, neo-classical geekdom, and various other idioms of post rock.
Among a handful of collaborators, Esmerine are mainly comprised of Bruce Cawdron and Rebecca Foon. Their work traces back to the early 00s, but they’ve seen an upsurge in output since 2010, having released four albums and a soundtrack to Freelancer on the Frontlines, a documentary about the human effects of war in the Middle East. It’s no wonder Mechanics of Dominion retains such elegiac qualities. The question is not “What does the record address?” It’s “What doesn’t it?”
Outpacing the album’s political themes is its balance of numerous world music styles. “La Penombra,” Italian for “half-light”, is the record’s most satisfying patois. In a half-Latin, half-Middle-Eastern 6/8 gait, it relies less on tricks from related acts (like Godspeed You! Black Emperor’s massive crescendos) and more on the players’ talents. Cawdron’s marimba sits amazingly atop Foon’s strings throughout, and the following “La Plume Des Armes” answers with major-key phrases that bring the lights up just enough to see the beauty behind all the sonic commotion.
When not worrying about melodies on piano or glockenspiel, Cawdron is a tornado on the drum kit. Like Radiohead’s “The National Anthem,” “Que Se Vayan Todos” makes it difficult to focus on one instrument. The drums are a borderline black metal derivation while Foon’s violin climbs theatrically up the neck over three minutes.
A wake up call from the record’s first half, “Mechanics of Dominion” employs volume as one of Esmerine’s various tools. The cellos are exultantly loud, and Cawdron juxtaposes a kick-snare pattern amidst a wash of decidedly non-rock and roll arrangement. The result is nearly eight minutes, and suffers as a distraction from the other, more grounded tracks. Such forceful talent has already been made apparent in Esmerine’s career, and “Mechanics of Dominion” is an overbearing piece of technique over passion.
Amidst the cacophony, there seems to be a hidden message underneath Dominion as delivered by the paean “Northeast Kingdom.” Tracing a mental arc through climate change, war torn nations, and the shadow of our wretched leaders, Esmerine have accomplished their goal of getting the listenership to acutely think about ethical and humanitarian issues in 2017. This is no easy burden for instrumental music, and the record tasks the listener with extracting specific meaning too often. The only clues are in the trilingual song titles, whose translations come off as a dramatic call to arms achieved through human compassion. The final two songs drop the ball with these themes, and stand as a puzzling contrast to the vigor of the album’s middle tracks. Mechanics of Dominion is too heady for its own good, but still holds ground as a wonderful combination of influences and post-genre style. It takes time for it to reveal itself, and it’s usually worth the investment.