Alexis Marshall – House of Lull. House of When

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Overall Score: 9/10
Depth: 9/10
Breadth: 9/10
Originality: 8.5/10
Pros: A pitch black, horrifying look into the mind of one of music's most singularly important and impressive talents
Cons: A little too close to the works of, in particular, Scott Walker to be hailed as truly unique

The past is like an anchor“. The lyric acts as a denouement to Drink from the Oceans. Nothing Can Harm You, the opening track of House of Lull. House of When. It feels a curious beginning to an album that holds the past and its influences in such high regard, roots and heart on sleeve. But then Alexis Marshall is a curious person.

Marshall, the frontman of Rhode Island’s perennially appreciated noise rock outfit, Daughters, is a cult hero in a nebulous space in music. In the last ten years, Daughters went from releasing their self-titled effort, to dissolving, to a rapturous return in the shape of You Won’t Get What You Want, perhaps the greatest reformation album ever written. It rightly received glowing praise from across the spectrum of the music press, pundits falling over themselves to be first on declaring the band the new hotness. More importantly, the fans followed suit. 

The name has become shorthand for inventive, challenging music, but Daughters’, and more pertinently Marshall’s brilliance was not some new, enigmatic force rearing its head for the first time. From second LP, Hell Songs, the band began to occupy an indistinct place in music reserved for only the best and most visionary of high artists. The merits and contributions of Daughters’ other permanent members cannot be overlooked: Nicholas Sadler and Jon Syverson are vital in crafting the scabrous soundscapes that Marshall intones, wails and sings over. Evolving exponentially between albums and finding new ways to shock, perturb and provoke thought, Daughters can seemingly do anything.

Marshall’s poetic abilities are well documented and not only in Daughters’ music. His most recent collection of poetry, Moving Windows, a joint effort with Mil-Spec’s Dan Darrah, was a gorgeously bleak look into the existential crises induced by travel. “Lost in self, surrounded by the great everything” was the mantra for the auteur, but he declared that “there are no answers” in that work. So when faced with the prospect of Marshall’s debut solo album, no-one knew what to expect. Being seemingly free to experiment in Daughters within the limits of the implied democracy between the now-trio, Marshall without restraints, able to explore whatever subjects he deemed most artistically gratifying seemed a salacious prospect. His unadulterated ability with only himself as the inhibiting factor promised the exceptional, whether there would be answers or not.

The first moment from House of Lull. House of When to reach audiences across the spectrum of masochistic music was Hounds in the Abyss. A grinding, monotone, monochrome dirge that recounts a character – it’s unclear whether Marshall positions himself as the central figure of these vignettes – stalked by an enigmatic, oppressive force, throwing rocks at their window, letting the air out of the tyres of their car. As ought to have been expected, it wasn’t a wholly fulfilling piece in the same way that standalone single, Nature in Three Movements in 2020 was. This is because Marshall is so clearly dedicated to entire pieces, be it in his musicianship or his poetry and so on its own, Hounds… makes little sense. While Nature does stand on its own two feet as a comprehensive statement, a shireking look into the abyssal territories that many people find themselves in throughout life, it is in itself as complete a piece as House of Lull. House of When. Hounds… on the other hand is not. It is an integral part of a whole, not something that has its maximum impact in isolation as the context of the record elevates it from a curio as to what Marshall is capable of to an essential moment in his career.

Hounds in the Abyss is followed by the Scott Walker aping It Just Doesn’t Feel Good Anymore. With drums constructed from scrap metal for use on the album, there is an industrial feel to House… but, obviously, not in the sense of a Rammstein, Ministry or Nine Inch Nails – though the latter’s scope is not far off. Instead we hear the grimy indignation of Throbbing Gristle and Einstürzende Neubauten in Syverson’s percussion, while It Just Doesn’t Feel Good Anymore is given a twisted backbone by what sounds like someone stamping on a saxophone. Marshall’s spoken apoplexy makes this claustrophobic track a nightmarish look into, what we can assume to be, his own feelings about the heavy weight of expectation. It feels every hit as artistically accomplished as Walker’s Bish Bosch, and as horrific as the throes of regret one gets after choosing to listen to that album. Whether he is specifically talking about his own experiences, be it as a father, a lover or the frontman of an exponentially popular band thrust into the limelight of experimental music, is unclear, and the song’s title may give cause for concern to fans of his artistry. The greatest artists are often pained individuals, and what we enjoy is their suffering displayed through the form they feel is most suited to their anguish. Lingua Ignota’s Caligula is rightly lauded as a masterpiece, but for the majority of listeners we are getting satisfaction and/or catharsis from someone else’s tortured life. Is it fair? And should we allow ourselves to hear Marshall or other artists in such trauma as a method of entertainment? It’s a bigger question than House of Lull. House of When, and if this were to be the last music Marshall put his name to – fortunately that seems an unlikely eventuality in 2021 – it would be a grand statement of personal hells like no other.

The story of the record is opaque. If there is a narrative running through it beyond the expulsion of the pitch black, it is hard to ascertain even after tens of listens. What is apparent is that through the ebb and flow, harsh or otherwise, as the album judders into crescendos and slips into maudlin spoken passages, Marshall feels more desperate, more incensed until we reach the penultimate track, They Can Lie There Forever. While It Just Doesn’t Feel Good Anymore is the most apparently aggressive the record gets, and likely the song casual fans of Daughters will gravitate towards, the vituperative spit of “If you were a knife I’d trace the carry away of my vein with your teeth“, is the zenith of Marshall’s disdain and misanthropy showcased on the album. It does not feel like some cry for help, rather a declaration of intent. 

The record harbors a darkness that is easy to recognise, particularly in its climax, Night Coming. It feels as if there is no light emanating from the titular house, as if it has been boarded up, barred from the inside and there sits Marshall alone, ruminating on his most invasive feelings. And yet, the collaborative aspect of this record, with contributions from Kristin Hayter (Lingua Ignota), Evan Patterson (Jaye Jayle) and Jon Syverson (Daughters), this triumph against adversity stands testament to the human ability to overcome the harrowing, the harmful, the hateful. These players around Marshall breathe a contextual optimism into the album, dispelling the bleakness, even just for a moment. The music is coarse, of a broken disposition. It is spellbinding, it is horrifying. But it couldn’t haven’t been made alone. That weight is too much for one. So solace should be taken in Marshall’s choice to not work in isolation, but instead lean into his closest confidants. In the end, it makes the record feel every bit as triumphant a work as Marshall would wish it to be. It falls short of being an absolute masterpiece in Marshall’s oeuvre by nature of following You Won’t Get What You Want and relying heavily on Soctt Walker and Einstürzende Neubauten – for example – but it is as close to unmitigated brilliance as one could hope for on a debut solo effort.

Alexis Marshall’s debut solo album, House of Lull . House of When is released July 23rd via Sargent House

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