Music

Fresh Terrain

A review of The Flashbulb’s Piety of Ashes

When the Weekly profiled Benn Jordan (aka The Flashbulb) in July, he explained that he was always most eager to share new music that sounds nothing like  his audience had heard before—and Jordan’s new album Piety of Ashes, out September 1, does not disappoint. Every track is its own musical journey, but each transitions seamlessly into the next to create a cohesive album that covers sounds from the crunching of leaves and the blowing wind to metallic, electronic beats, all contributing to a complex narrative of transitions and loss.

Jordan produced the album while he spent the past three years in the woods just outside of Atlanta, Georgia—a stark contrast to his roots in West Englewood, and the resulting product reflects this change in scenery. His past albums, like Compositions for Piano and Nothing Is Real, utilized, respectively, more instrumental piano or electronic house music sounds. Piety of Ashes is a mix of these digital/electronic and acoustic influences, effectively retaining Jordan’s signature technique while still fitting his refusal to adhere to one particular genre.

One key difference between this album and its predecessors is the electronic production: a new variety of techniques and instruments are used and shifted between within each song, and each song has a background as intricate as the main melody. Every time the drumline enters, the feel of the song changes completely, as he employs contrasting rhythmic and melodic lines, playing with different time signatures and allowing them to move together. The first track, “Turning Alone,” has a metallic-sounding percussive background with a powerful orchestral melody at the forefront, and as the two interchange, the progression of the song intensifies. 

Meanwhile, the use of instruments like trumpet and saxophone reflect the influence of Jordan’s upbringing on the South Side, where the majority of older musicians around him were trained in jazz. In “Wind,” the fifteenth track on the album, there is a contrasting dialogue of sounds between the bells and a piano for more than a minute in the beginning, before an intricate drumline is added along with a saxophone melody. The progression of each track continuously reveals more not only about the message of the song, but about Jordan’s background as an artist.

Jordan is always concerned with keeping his audience engaged, and through the complex construction that flows from track to track, this goal is definitely achieved—the experimental risks he takes in his production pay off.

Like much of Jordan’s previous work, every song sounds intentionally connected to its surrounding tracks, so much that it is sometimes difficult to tell when one song starts and another ends. This might have been the downfall of the album’s otherwise impressive progression; however, this connection actually defines its cohesiveness, and does not stop every song from having a unique sound and feeling. In “Leaves,” the thirteenth track on the album, we hear spoken words at the beginning that transition into an almost campfire-style rhythm of claps, light drumming, and acoustic guitar. The next track, “Turning Inconsolate,” picks up right where “Leaves” left off: in the beginning, in fact, it almost sounds like someone stepping on leaves. However, it then moves into an ethereal melody with no guitar at all and no clearly established rhythm. Although these two songs are completely different in style, they pair perfectly with each other and their surrounding tracks. Continuity between songs is present throughout many of Jordan’s previous albums, but this coupled with an increased usage of vocals and lyrics gives Piety of Ashes a more apparent narrative. 

The lyrical presence in this album is the biggest difference between Piety of Ashes and Jordan’s previous work, and what most contributes to this bolstered narrative .Most of Jordan’s music is instrumental, and so was much of this album, but it was refreshing to hear him explore new vocal territory in several songs. He has occasionally included lyrics in the past, but here they take new form, combining with the electronic elements to create energetic hooks and provide a clearer message for the album as a whole. In “Leaves,” the lyrics of Jordan’s spoken word experimentation inspire reflection on the implications of “ashes”: “I threw his picture away just before he died/I guess I was distracted by the specks on the wall/how small they are in comparison to the entire wall.” A simple, contemplative piano melody plays behind these words, which draws the listeners’ attention to the lyrics rather than to Jordan’s typically more layered production. This melancholy continues in “Hungry Mouth, Shut,” whose lyrics are also spoken and almost abrasive in their message: “Hey, I look like a clown, like a sad clown!/Gee, I’m really sad!” Contrasted with a robotic, muddled voice and framed by a haunting background of wave-like, windy sound, the lyrics express a distress that the production exemplifies. There is a distinct candor in Jordan’s words that makes this album far more personal, and gives clarity to the theme suggested by its title.

Jordan’s past albums include tracks that are more impressive for their production quality than their distinct emotional message. Piety of Ashes brings Jordan’s artistic and personal background to the forefront through lyrics, while maintaining a mostly instrumental focus. The lyrics included in certain songs encourage attention and respect, or “piety,” to more melancholy feelings like loss, separation, travel, and uncertainty. In “Gray Pill,” they serve as a command: “The rain has slowed/It’s time, let’s go/At night, unwind/Leave us behind.” The instrumental track of “Gray Pill” is also more rhythmic and pulsing, amplifying the musical journey that already occurs through the ever-changing nature of each song. Jordan seeks to move the listener through the complex and personal thought process surrounding what we leave behind, and through these lyrics, he definitely succeeds.

The last track, “Goodbye Bastion,” is a perfect ending. Saying goodbye to a bastion, or a structure that upholds and defends, suits the album’s constant movement and change. The breadth of instrumentation, lyrics, and electronic experimentation present in Piety of Ashes is a demonstration of how, as Jordan said in our last interview, the most growth occurs for him as an artist when he is exploring fresh terrain. As the trumpet sounds in the last line of the melody, one thing is clear: those three years in the woods certainly paid off.

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