The For Carnation - Biography
The family trees of post rock bands are often complex, with revolving line-ups, and band members cross-pollinating, collaborating and forming musical collectives. It could even be seen as a tradition of sorts, harking back to the 1980s, when American hardcore bands sought to break down not only musical structures but also the whole ego-driven rock band paradigm, creating something larger than the sum of its parts, namely, an idea. The post rock movement carries on in a similar way, by breaking down rock music to its barest components, but the idea seems to be less agenda-driven and more singularly about the music itself. By the time he started The For Carnation in 1994, Brian McMahan was already an influential collaborator, formerly of Louisville, Kentucky’s seminal, edgy post hardcore band, Squirrel Bait and the (probably uncontested) godfathers of post rock, Slint. When Slint disbanded, McMahan went to Chicago and briefly played in Will Oldham’s Palace Brothers with former Slint band mate David Pajo. The pair formed the first line-up of The For Carnation, which included (also from Slint) Britt Walford and Tortoise’s Doug McCombs and John Hendon. The collective was to evolve with a cast of band members and musicians from both Louisville and Chicago. They released two EPs and one full length LP, creating sparse, understated jams, stripping rock music to its moodiest, sparest, most tense, and fragile elements -- exploring them to the Nth degree. What emerges from the breakdown is difficult to quantify, but might possibly be something akin to pure mood.
The first two EPs (although the second one is sometimes considered a short LP), Fight Songs (1995 Matador) and Marshmallows (1996 Matador) were combined into the compilation record, Promised Works and released in 1997 by Runt, a small Italian label, and then re-released by Touch and Go in 2007. Spacious, infectious guitar lines weave around hushed vocals and copious amounts of space. “I Wear the Gold” is one of the collection’s heavier moments, with its thick groove and Leonard Cohen inspired melody. There’s a lingering sense of foreboding in these recordings; the tension mounts and sustains in tracks like “Winter Lair” with its icy wind chimes and whispered vocal delivery. An Impressive array of artists contributed to Promised Works, including Slint’s Tim Ruth, Chicago producer Brad Wood and drummer John Weiss. Instead of diluting the vision of the music, the disparateness of the musicians emphasizes the ethos that it’s the music -- not the ensemble -- at center stage here.
With another host of talent in tow, including bassist Todd Cook, drummer Steve Goodfriend, guitarist/keyboardist Bob Bruno and guests Kim Deal from The Pixies and cool, avant/rock cellist Alison Chesley, McMahan and Co. released the self-titled, The For Carnation (2000 Touch and Go). Produced by John McEntire, the LP, if not a total departure, is certainly an evolution. Intensely somber, with a hint of impending menace, this record is heavier and groovier than the previous releases. Although the album’s six songs remain true to McMahan’s studies in tension, space and subtlety, they also contain influences of minimalist drone, in the repetitious, funereal bell in “Being Held,” and more than a trace of trip hop in the sumptuous, hefty groove (Massive Attack springs to mind) of “Tales.” With synths and crackles and clangs and sci-fi bleeps, the compositions here create soundscapes that gather and disperse like dark clouds. It’s a rich and varied album, and McMahan reveals himself as a master of, well, concealment. The most auspicious presence here is absence; the boldest statement is in the understatement. The resulting (and ambiguous) effect, where no ideal or agenda is presented, requires an intimate engagement with the music, leaving it up to the listener to decide how to fill in the spaces.