written by Chris Familton
Dirty Three are a band that sound like they are both falling apart and implicitly intertwined at the same time. Their music can reach peaks of ache and despair and create moments of such tenderness and emotional resonance that it is hard to think of any other group that possesses such abilities. They inhabit a netherworld between jazz, post rock, folk and psych rock while never taking up residence in any one of those places for more than a fleeting moment. Dirty Three are musical gypsies by nature and as such they choose to touch down, pool their ideas and record when the timing is right and geographical location permits. Thankfully the stars have aligned for the release of Toward The Low Sun, their eighth album and in Warren Ellis’ words perhaps their best yet.
Those are fighting words from the violinist, especially when records like Horse Stories and Ocean Songs are so highly regarded. Since those albums there have been many moments of magic but none have been as fully realised as those releases from the mid 90s. Time apart, it appears, has done wonders for them this time round with Toward The Low Sun feeling raw yet orchestrated, succinct without losing that feeling of wander and lust that so permeates their work. Opening with the frantic dissonance of Furnace Skies they sound like they are making a statement that they are back, energised and by no means mellowed by the passing of time. Jim White is an aural blur in the background while Mick Turner stands in the centre of the storm dispatching spare chords with casual menace. Ellis serenades the scene with those romanticised passes across the strings before an organ joins the fray, showing they are open to incorporating other instruments when the music calls for them.
Piano is the key addition creating the central melodies of Sometimes I Forget You’ve Gone while White continues on his own percussive time travel on the other side of the room. It is a beautiful and fresh angle on the Dirty Three ‘sound’, opening up a myriad of possibilities without sacrificing their core grace and grandeur. Moon On The Land is a respite from White’s frantic dispatches as he plays it straight and Turner switches to acoustic guitar. It is a Mogwai-esque folk tune that serves as the perfect prelude to the ‘Dirty Three by numbers’ (but oh what glorious numbers) of Rising Below with that trademark build of energy and sound that feels like an approaching whirling dervish.
Dirty Three have been well-served by some stellar production on this record from Casey Rice and Adam Rhodes. The spread of sound on tracks like the magical Rain Song brings you right into the room and creates the impression of wandering amongst the players. Turner’s guitar is closely mic’d making his intermittent notes all the more resonant. He is the unsung hero of the trio, not possessing the drama and presence of Ellis nor the brawn and dexterity of White, yet take away his guitar and there is only a skeleton left. Turner has the ability to play notes seemingly in their own space and time, almost randomly, yet they sit exactly where you want to hear them.
That Was Was and Ashen Snow are sonic bookends for the range that Dirty Three dish up on Toward The Low Sun. The former is the trio in rockist mode with chugging chords and Ellis in swaggering with caustic flourishes of his violin bow. Ashen Snow then flips the table with a classical folk lightness of touch comprised of gently swelling strings and stately piano that stands as one of the most beautiful five minutes of music they’ve recorded.
The only minor criticism of Toward The Low Sun is that there are few moments of true unbridled abandon that the band can do so well. Those transportive passages where it feels like free-fall or an upward physical acceleration. They hint, almost tease that is where they are heading with the opening clatter of Furnace Skies but that isn’t built upon. It matters little in the scheme of things though as by the end of You Greet Her Ghost which closes out the album you are left satisfied, emotionally charged or depleted (depending on your ‘glass half full/empty’ approach) and content in knowing that Dirty Three are still Dirty Three – still investing their music with subtle explorations and diversions while retaining the qualities that makes them so unique.
this review was first published on FasterLouder