Sleeping At Last - Atlas: Darkness
*The following review was one I wrote a few months back for AbsolutePunk.net. Ryan O'Neal (the mastermind behind Sleeping At Last), has since released Light, the second part of the Atlas series. Check it out here.
As modern trends have begun to overwhelm the system of music distribution, washing away the old ways of doing things and moving further and further into the digital realm, artists have continually strived to do different things with their music. Radiohead famously offered their seventh LP, 2007’s In Rainbows, on a pay-what-you-want basis. Other artists have taken to kickstarter pages in order to launch recording projects, or offered free downloads in hopes of building a fanbase for their live shows. And keepsake physical formats like vinyl records—and, in some bizarre instances, cassette tapes—have been resurrected to suit the ever-shifting whims of listeners. But in many cases, the most important rules of the game have become accessibility, immediacy, and visibility. It’s increasingly rare for artists to take years off between releases and tours, and as a result, EPs, reissues, live albums, concert DVDs, and special fan-club collections have all become important tools for maintaining a foothold in the industry.
Within this swirl of modernization—even as the major record labels attempt to cling to the old rules—indie-folk rock outfit Sleeping At Last has proven to be one of the most interesting players. The brainchild of Chicago-based musician Ryan O’Neal, Sleeping At Last released four full-length records between 2000 and 2009, but never really caught my ear until 2011. And when they did, it wasn’t a full record that did the trick, but a series of short, conceptual EPs called the Yearbook Collection. Released between October 2010 and September 2011, Yearbook encompassed one EP for every month of the year, each with three tracks, and all covering a wide range of musical ground, thematic atmosphere, and varied musical landscape.
But Yearbook, offered on an innovative subscription basis through the band’s website, was more than just another musical project. It was an experiment in keeping listeners engaged for an entire year; it was a triple-album’s worth of material spread out over 12 months; and it was a reminder of why the actual sonic portion of a musical purchase is only a part of the experience. With beautiful artwork for each EP and constant blog updates providing insight into O’Neal’s artistic process, Yearbook was a perfect example of how an independent artist can thrive in the modern age. And as songs from the collection landed slots on various television programs, as O’Neal contributed a track to the oft-praised Twilight soundtracks, it was clear that his artistic experiment was working out fairly well
After taking a well-deserved break in 2012 (aside from a handful of singles, that is), O’Neal has returned to kick off another series of EPs, and this time, his vision has an even wider arc. Where Yearbook had an obvious end-date from the moment it was conceived, the new series, titled Atlas, will allow O’Neal the bountiful freedom of moving the goalposts whenever he sees fit. Atlas, as a larger series, will be an exploration of “the origins, emergence, and experiences of life,” and it’s easy to see how those concepts might be manipulated into a musical odyssey that lasts a decade. According to the songwriter, the first three years of the project have already been mapped out, with potential for more releases to follow.
Poetically, the first disc in the series is called Darkness. “Like all things, Atlas begins with Darkness,” O’Neal reasoned on his blog, following the announcement of the series. “The meanings behind the word “Darkness” are endless: beginnings, fear, blindness, the unknown, loss, even hope, and so much more.” Fittingly, “Overture” begins the set with the commencement of the universe, carrying us through the tides of human history as it goes. Over a bed of organic mandolin acoustics and an orchesis of musical flourishes, first swelling and then quickly receding again, “Overture” is a gorgeous introduction to the world that Atlas will undoubtedly continue to flesh out as it moves forward.
The pulsating intensity of “Woodwork” is even more interesting, with a flickering, Coldplay-esque intro and a soaring, guttural hook. In four minutes, O’Neal builds an almost apocalyptic atmosphere. He gives us a view of the world in chaos, of darkness falling across life, love, and civilization, but he also imbues that dire situation with an eerie calm. We feel like we’re watching the universe fall to its knees while remaining safe in the eye of the storm, while holding fast underwater because to break the surface would be to come apart. “It’s a cruel, cruel trick/How we lose ourselves when we find everything else,” O’Neal sings in the final verse. “Like a train wreck, the sound of your breathing hits my ears/Our world reappears and it breaks us new.” The imagery is rich and the message clear: we take the greatest things in life for granted until they are about to be taken away. We only cherish the light when the darkness has stolen it from us. And that’s a sentiment that appears time and time again throughout these five songs.
By the time the record reaches its final track, the heart-shattering climax that is “Uneven Odds,” it overpowers you. Of all the songs on Darkness, “Uneven Odds” may be the only one to address the concept of death directly. “I once knew your father well,” O’Neal sings at the outset, his mournful croon and a series of funereal piano chords distinguishing the mood. “He fought tears as he spoke of your mother’s health.” It’s a sobering beginning to song that rises from its tearful intro into a rousing, orchestral catharsis. The mother dies, the father leaves, and the child is left to battle a world of his own darkness. But the narrator is his guardian, a helping hand for the hard times whose parting words hint at where Atlas will give us next: “Darkness exists to make light truly count.”
One of my only issues with Yearbook was that each EP was only made up of three songs. No matter how good the highlights were, there was never an opportunity for O’Neal to really build any sense of thematic or musical tension, and as a result, each piece passed more as a snapshot of the month it was covering than as a meticulously composed portrait. Atlas: Darkness takes full advantage of its extra time though, constructing a radiant latticework of mournful energy and emotive force through its songs. The result is a weightier, more fully-realized work than anything O’Neal has tackled before, and with the Light EP on the way sometime this year and more pieces of Atlas to follow, I’m looking forward to watching this panoramic vision come into focus.