“Caught In The Wake Forever is the work of Scottish based artist Fraser McGowan. It was born after Fraser suffered a complete mental breakdown last year, following a life-long battle with chronic anxiety…” when I read this press release I was concerned that I wouldn’t be able to engage or relate with the album enough to do it justice in a review. Weaving such a personal experience into cohesive musical expression can be difficult, the resulting compositions threatening to alienate listeners and provide a bleak, intangible collection of songs. Thankfully, on Against A Simple Wooden Cross, Fraser McGowan has demonstrated an admirable sonic alchemy, turning a highly subjective experience into an album of universal resonance.
The sound palette is as stark as the subject matter it depicts: documentary style field recordings, piano, glitchy and distorted electronics, hushed vocals and minimal post rock guitar figures reminiscent of Mogwai and Bardo Pond. But comparisons do this album a disservice; this is not an album derivative of influence. The guitar and piano are played with a delicate consideration, and combine with the additional compositional elements to give this album a unique position within the catalogue of modern experimental music. Field recordings, along with the electronic textures they sit beside, range from subtle ambience to violent cacophony, and yet never threaten to overwhelm the more traditional sonic elements. Though thoughtful placement and skilful production they root the compositions in the real world, underpinning and augmenting the emotional impact of the album by providing the listener with a vessel in which to better examine their own traumas.
When considered against the majority of Fraser’s peers, the decision to replace processing trickery with emotional clarity was a brave one. It has paid off. Against A Simple Wooden Cross feels delightfully uncluttered and unfussy, with each track’s genesis gradually unfolding into an absorbing and uniquely autobiographical portrait of specific points along Frasers journey into despair and out along the long road to recovery. The shear vitality of emotion evidenced here creates a real connection between the artist and the listener, imparting these introspective, isolated compositions with a highly palpable tactility that takes a dark and deeply personal experience and turns it into a universal and redemptive collection of songs.
In spite of the catharsis that making music can offer, this cannot have been an easy album to make. The stigma that surrounds mental illness could easily have served to worsen Fraser’s condition. His decision to risk this is to the benefit of anyone who decides to listen. For whilst this album is a document of trauma, and there is no doubt that it is in places melancholic, lonely and desperate, the overriding feeling that you are left with is one of hope and resolution. At some point everyone experiences a kind of progression from trauma to recovery. Against a Simple Wooden Cross encapsulates this process and in so doing, is both a moving elegy to the condition of chronic anxiety and a considered, tangible route out of the other side.
Review by Ed Hamilton0