When I was in college, I went to a graduation party for some older kids. My friend was dating one of them and I got invited. There was a car with a trunk full of beer, really bad 90s punk I’d never heard, and a bunch of people I didn’t know. I didn’t drink at the time. I didn’t leave my room much. I didn’t know a thing about this music they said was “punk” and to this day that word means little to me. At one point they got out bottles of champagne and started yelling and spraying champagne all over everyone. I got drenched, and I turned sadly and walked away – back to my dorm room to change. I felt like an alien, totally unlike these people. These “punks,” these self-described bastions of alternative culture who were finishing their tenure at a college that prided itself on its deviation from mainstream ideals, were celebrating their graduation the very same way football teams celebrate winning the super bowl.
I returned to my room with small, pathetic tears hanging from the corners of my eyes. A sorry scene, to be sure. As I was changing my clothes I put on a CD I’d recently picked up used: Wax-Work Echoes by The Shadow Ring. Far away from the din of that awful party, I sat entranced by the music, so much stranger and so much closer to the way I felt than the “music” they’d been playing down at the frat house disguised as a critical thinking factory. The Shadow Ring sounded as weird as I felt, as depressed as I was, as far-removed from the rest of the world.
Fast forward a few months, and I’m on the softball field (insert sports joke here—I’ll tell you the story some other time) talking to first baseman Scott Foust about music. Somehow my interest in The Shadow Ring comes up, and he mentions that not only does he know the band personally, but he’s collaborated with them and even released their latest double LP. The next time we saw each other, he handed me a copy of Lighthouse. The next day I was reading on my bed and put the record on. By the time I heard the inexplicable, disturbing, and hilarious sound of Darren Harris blurting out “I’m having a baby…” over screeching, high-pitched feedback, I was hooked.
I started hanging around with Scott and his wife Karla an awful lot at this point. Soon enough, they’d released The Shadow Ring’s next LP, Lindus, and Graham Lambkin had released his first solo effort, Poem (for Voice & Tape). These releases only further cemented Graham and The Shadow Ring as the arbiters of a new era of listening for me. These records, and the debut Tart LP (Scott, Karla, and Graham together), occupied my turntable for countless hours during the bitter and unpleasant season that was my life as 2001 passed into 2002. I loved that for all the apparent bleakness of their worldview, these records managed to somehow thrive and excite on the thrill of their creative and conceptual content. The alienation that provided much of the content wasn’t debilitating at all; it was the fuel these people used to make music unlike anyone else. Needless to say, I was inspired and hunted down everything I could.
I don’t remember when I first met Graham, but it was around this time, and while I’m not quite sure how he took to me at first (I was younger, much more bitter, and wore a lot more makeup in those days), we quickly bonded over a mutual love of David Bowie and ZNR and have remained friends ever since. We’ve passed some very pleasant afternoons recording strange things together and many long nights listening to records. So please, forgive me any nepotism I may display in my celebration of this most marvelous and fertile band of his. I assure you the enthusiasm is genuine.
A few years ago Graham resurrected his Kye imprint, previously responsible only for Poem. He has quickly grown the label into a remarkable thing, releasing new material by himself and other well-curated contemporaries (Idea Fire Company, Call Back the Giants, Vanessa Rossetto, and Helm, to name a few) as well as archival releases from heroes like Moniek Darge and Henning Christiansen. There was also a stunning 2CD Shadow Ring retrospective, Life Review.
And now he presents us with a holy grail of sorts, a double LP of previously unreleased Shadow Ring material. It’s called Remains Unchanged, and I’ve been listening to it an awful lot in these past weeks. It spans the entirety of the band’s career, from 1993 through 2003. In some ways, it plays a lot like Life Review, in that it’s a chronological survey of sorts. But the special thing is that for us Shadow Ring nuts who are hearing this record, it’s all new again! Especially with the second LP, I’ve found myself remembering what it felt like to hear those records for the first time. As with my first experience with Wax-Work Echoes, this music sounds as alien as I feel. And then, when you get past that feeling, and actually step into the music (the way one steps into a good painting, or lives inside a great film, or is haunted for years by a perfect book), the experience which at first seemed so entirely new actually brings you back to yourself, and the once-alien art becomes comforting. It’s the alchemy of the creative process made manifest, it’s the sort of thing you can apply to everyday life, and in that sense this is very important art indeed.
From the obsessive fan’s perspective it’s great to hear things like John Peel talk about the band at the very beginning of the album, it’s great to hear Tim Goss’ first ever performance with the group (catch it if you can!), it’s great to hear not one, but two versions of the brilliant “Squawk with Me,” it’s fantastic to have an entire side devoted to I’m Some Songs outtakes. Hell, it’s great to hear it all! But what really makes this set special is that it actually works as an album. When Life Review came out, I’d heard all that stuff before, so it functioned in much the same way as many best-of records, and as with the best of the best-of records, I kept in my car for months, revisiting select tracks from one of my favorite bands. What Remains Unchanged does is offer us a kind of secret history, and as such it takes on a more dramatic emotional trajectory. The bleakness of a line like “factory smog is a sign of change/ and seabirds toil in trees/ lay factory eggs in iron nests/ bronze-baked leaves rust/ smoke fills cuckoo’s head” from “Squawk with Me,” recorded in 1993, is mirrored by the sonic iciness of “Their Minds, recorded a decade later . In the latter track we can actually hear the rusty bronze leaves fall from the trees to the pavement below, we hear the decay of the factory and a disembodied voice that could easily be the memory of a long-dead foreman. Not to get too bogged down in metaphor, but the point is that, although the band’s sound changed so much in the ten years of their existence, the visionary qualities of their personality stayed constant. Or rather these qualities evolved, so that the work toward the end of their career was unquestionably the work of the same people, despite the radical changes in sound.
And that was one of the most interesting things about The Shadow Ring: they charged right out of the gate with a sound that was confident and unique, and over the course of ten years slowly changed into something that was almost barely discernible as a band, but without losing an ounce of intelligence or confidence of presentation. The awkward, determined, instantly-distinctive vocals of Darren Harris, Tim Goss’ glacial and austere electronics, and Graham’s compositional wherewithal combined to create something that bordered on the miraculous time and time again.
I stand in awe of “Alcove Hair & Hand.” A Lighthouse outtake, I can only imagine that this would have ended up on side 4, when almost all “musical” content has fallen away in favor of stark, strange vocals and occasional instrumental interjections. This track speaks perfectly to what makes The Shadow Ring a great band. A fairly straight reading of text, the only signs that this is a “song,” are the repetition of a phrase (a “chorus”) and an intermittent buzz that reminds us that this is music.
“When Entrance Celebrates Champagne” is a magnificently dark and mysterious Lindus outtake, introduced by a full two minutes of textured hiss before giving way to a bleak and unsettling series of images. The doubling of vocals all but takes my breath away. It’s a great track, full of simple, subtle atmosphere and an endlessly fascinating lyric. The slowed vocals work so well with the grey music that their meaning becomes obscured as the track goes on, and I find myself needing to repeat it just to figure out what’s being said, before losing it in the fabric of the sound all over again. And these are just a couple examples!
The Shadow Ring is a band at once naive and austere, hilarious and depressing, comforting and ominous. They sound like the actual content of life, while at the same time being removed enough from the everyday to comment poetically on the most mundane aspects of it. Their music is always both challenging and imminently listenable. And unlike so many other bands, they didn’t release a ton of material. Seven full-length records, a bootleg LP, and four singles over the course of ten years. Some compilation tracks. And it was perfect. Each record built on the last one until the band had all but dissolved. The way the last few records decayed was as beautiful as watching a snowman melt, and in retrospect I don’t know if I would have wanted it any other way. But a project like Remains Unchanged is so welcome and so revelatory, such a nice surprise. It’s great, because I get to hear The Shadow Ring all over again, I get to experience a feeling that is truly indescribable. I don’t even know if it’s what other people feel when listening to the group. If somehow hopelessness and awe and love of beauty could be rolled into a ball, that would somehow approximate what I’m talking about. They’ve also made me laugh until I cried, and to do all this at once is no small task. At the risk of sounding weepy and maudlin (as though that’s a risk I’m afraid to take!), The Shadow Ring is a goddam treasure.