When first prompted with this assignment, I entered with a heavy heart.
I had recently dealt with the self-inflicted loss of a close friend, and upon receiving this album, I learned the members of Greensboro, North Carolina’s The Collection composed the record within the aftershock of a friend’s suicide. The album combines often dark, uncertain thoughts with roaring, massive instrumentals and passionate vocals. This sort of juxtaposition lends a hint at the reasoning behind the album’s title: Ars Moriendi. Sharing the name of ancient Latin text written during the period of the Black Death, which detailed protocol on how to “die well,” the record acts (to me, being overly-analytical) as translations of the values the texts taught – that dying has a good side, that there are chances for consolation and redemption, that death is not something to be afraid of. It is, literally, the art of dying.
“From Dust” acts as an opening bookend, teasing with soft violins and chimes, growing rapidly before leading directly into “Scala Naturae,” which features a striking vocal spot from Mira Wimbish, one of a few that she delivers. When lead vocalist David Wimbish joins her within the minute, the two combine gracefully. Presenting the supporting vocalist is an interesting choice, and is one that I was pleased with.
While “The Borrowers” is technically in the coveted third spot here, “The Gown of Green” is the third full track. Regardless, both ≈3:00 songs could interchangeably hold the spot. “The Borrowers” quickly shifts from gentle to huge and back again, with thumping drums and a horns section, while the latter sticks to the more-conventional strings and percussion without sacrificing grandeur.
On the first of what I clustered together as a trilogy, comprised of “The Younger One” and later “The Middle One” and “The Doubtful One,” Wimbish begins softly, singing just above a calm acoustic guitar. Just as it seems to end, his strums intensify and rapid drums bring the song to a dramatic, echoing exit. “The Middle One” (which I’ve pegged as my favorite of the three) begins plucky and folksy. Mira loans her voice to duet segments yet again, this time acting as support rather than taking lead. Even with the two sharing vocal duties, the vocals as a whole take a backseat on the song. Just under the midway mark, a brief piano solo triggers an instrumental avalanche of horns, violins, percussion, and keys. David’s vocals soon resume, but are left a bit overshadowed.
With quick shifts in both range and tempo, “The Art of Dying” features arguably David’s best vocal performance throughout Ars Moriendi. The accompaniment behind him races through, and as a low dip signals what you’d expect to be the end of the song, it swells back up once more and closes out in the midst of a great chaos. Just as this one unexpectedly continues further, each of the pair of songs that follow it – “Broken Tether” and “Capernaum” do the same. On the later of the two, the finale features a swirl of strings and drums, and fits with the song very well. With the first, on a song that was upbeat and playful, the closing minute brings a dark, eerie piano solo. Had it been offered on its own, it could have been more successful, though its presentation here makes it feel tacked.
The five-minute “To Dust” brings the album to a close in solid fashion, which is impressive, because to do so after the gorgeous “Some Days I Don’t Want to Sing” was a tall order. Even as the shortest song on the record, “Some Days …” leaves one of the largest impacts. On a record that displays countless musicians’ skills with dozens of instruments (see lineup below), here we have nothing more than piano and violins tucked beneath Wimbish’s vocals. And while the bright-and-cheery atmosphere that is present throughout the majority of the album masks the topics of death and uncertainty and potential faithlessness, there are no masks here. There is brokenness and pain present in Wimbish’s vocals, and his trembling whimpers are revealing and heartwrenching and absolutely stunning.
If Ars Moriendi has only one message to say, it’s this:life doesn’t end when a person dies. Death is always thought to be this enigmatic, answerless thing that we all fear. But, while the album was written following the loss of a close friend of the group, it brought about something new and beautiful and hopeful. And while it may not provide answers or closure or anything concrete and definitive, it still provides something. It takes tragedy and turns it into something triumphant.
Release Date: July 15th, 2014
01. “From Dust”
02. “Scala Naturae”
03. “The Borrowers”
04. “The Gown of Green”
05. “The Younger One”
07. “The Middle One”
08. “The Doubtful One”
09. “The Art of Dying”
10. “Broken Tether”
12. “Some Days I Don’t Want to Sing (O’ Death Where Is Thy Sting?)”
13. “To Dust
David Wimbish- Accordion, Guitar, Banjo, Cello, piano, Brass, Throat
Tom Troyer- Guitar, Glockenspiel, Flute
Steven Berbec – Trumpet
Mira Wimbish- Accordion, Throat, Auxiliary Percussion
Whitney Johnson- Throat, Glockenspiel, Auxiliary percussion, Organ
Tim Austin- Drums
Hayden Cooke- Bass
Philip Keller- Baritone, Auxiliary Percussion
Christina Goss- Piano, Rhodes
Christina Brooke- Cello
Hope Baker- Clarinet
Josh Weesner- Violin
Graham Dickey- Trombone
Edd Kerr- Guitar
Sandra Wimbish – Trumpet
Joy Waegerle- merchant, keeping us sane, smiling
Past, possibly present, and hopefully future members:
Ben Thompson- Bass, organ, Auxiliary Percussion
Luke Thompson- Aux Percussion
Jennifer Millis – Cello
Blake Burchette- Trombone
Xavier Hobbs – Trombone
Joanna Hampton- Piano, Trumpet, other doo-dads
Steve Rozema -Trumpet, Glockenspiel, Piano, Banjo
Written by Eric Riley