Grief manifests itself differently for each person. I wish I could say that the loss of loved ones was an abnormality, but the harsh reality is that it is something we will all have to deal with in some way or another in our lifetimes. When I was eleven years old I lost my grandfather to a cruel disease. I know that eleven seems rather young to lose someone and fully understand it, so it might help to know that my grandparents basically had a hand in raising me and my younger brother. Both of my parents worked and so I spent just about everyday with my Grandmother and Pop-pop. Most days were spent eating Happy Meals and helping my handyman grandfather work on whatever project he was tending to at the time, or even just sitting on his lap while he watched football. Needless to say I really looked up to the guy. So when he was diagnosed with Lou Gehrig’s Disease and his body began to slowly wither away in front of my eyes, it was really hard for me to comprehend. For reasons I can’t quite explain, I became really angry and essentially turned into a rotten brat. Sure, I would help lift my once strong grandfather into his wheelchair, but I did it begrudgingly. It was hard for me, and I wish I could say that I handled it differently, but that’s how my young mind chose to deal with the reality that I would soon lose my grandfather. When we finally did lose him a couple of years later, I came to grips with my emotions and basically shut down. Now, not a day goes by that I don’t think about him.
While recording his latest full-length album Communion, Ken Reaume, under the name Black Walls, was dealing with a great loss of his own—that of his father. That’s a grief I cannot even begin to comprehend. Looking for an outlet for himself, Ken turned to music and, in a way, Communion became his own personal grieving process. Shutting himself away from the world in the safety of his bedroom, he set to work on these five very personal tracks. When I first clicked play on the album I wasn’t even aware of the heavy backstory that the songs carried, and yet they clutched tight around my heart and pulled me gently in. Even in those early moments there was some unexplainable emotional grip to the music. Something in it that reached out to me. It was only later that I learned that Ken poured his soul into these tracks as a way of coping with his loss, and I can now see how that manifests itself in their calculated and understated beauty. It’s a dense, emotional journey that brings me to tears even now as I write this. What’s important to note, though, is that the music, while certainly heavy and grief-stricken, does not dwell only in the darkness. Rather, it uses the darkness as a starting point as it claws upward towards the light. Ken never loses sight of this, and as listeners, we shouldn’t either.
When describing the album, Ken is quoted saying that it is a “bleak exploration in devotional doom and cold post-rock.” And that’s certainly true. The tracks extend onwards with an average length of around ten minutes and within their run-times they never shake their cold, gloomy weight. It’s within these lengthy tracks that Black Walls feels free to furtively explore space, tone, and texture through the lens of his grief. Sonically, it’s one of the most beautiful things I’ve heard in quite a while and I can’t speak highly enough of it. Working with James Plotkin (who has also lent his talents to giants like ISIS, Sunn O))) and Oneohtrix Point Never), the music of Communion is very obviously slaved over. Every nuanced corner of ambient noise, every stretch of tenderly plotted tremolo picking, every warbling vocal line is painstakingly etched into the album’s narrative. Ken also describes the album as monolithic, and really, I can’t think of a more succinct way of summarizing it. Blocking out the light, the tracks tower over the land like monuments of cold, cracked stone. It’s only until you patiently step back, inhale, and take in the beauty of what’s before you that you can truly appreciate it.
I wish that I had had the capacity to funnel my grief into something such as this when I lost my grandfather all those years ago. Finding something creative like that to focus your energy on can be a healthy outlet both mentally and spiritually. Not only did Communion act as a conduit for Ken Reaume’s pain, but the album now stands as a testament to the memory of his father, a dark sonic memorial that captures a very specific and trying time in the artist’s life. I really hope that Ken doesn’t mind that I’ve pulled the narrative of this album into the dark corners of my own life, because in all honesty that’s what great art does. It takes on new life for each one that holds an appreciation for it. It makes you feel something. And even if that something is reliving painful, personal hardship, I’m happy it causes me to feel anything at all.
Communion is out now via Pleasence Records.