Recent years have seen Dirty Three take something of a backseat as frontman Warren Ellis concentrated on making music with Nick Cave, both as part of The Bad Seeds and Grinderman, as well as producing atmospheric soundtracks for films like The Road and The Proposition. Toward The Low Sun is the first Dirty Three release in almost seven years following 2005’s epic Cinder, which saw the band diversify their sound over 19 shorter tracks, as guitars registered more prominently alongside bagpipes, bouzouki and mandolin, with Cat Power also contributing vocals. Toward The Low Sun follows a similar trajectory in some ways, introducing sounds hitherto not present on Dirty Three albums while promoting others that may have previously played a more subordinate role.
It is noticeable straight from the off, opening track Furnace Skies arguably being the fastest, most frenetic piece of music they have recorded. If anything it seems to be closer to Grinderman in sound, as freeform guitar and skittering percussion come together to unsettling effect, demanding your immediate attention. At first the sense of surprise looms heavy, yet on further listens reveals itself to be a direction that the band could find considerable mileage in, should they choose to explore. A similar thought presents itself later during That Was Was as the sound of Ellis’ violin becomes distorted to such an extent that it sounds like a hardened, gnarled guitar riff.
Yet, they also manage to display another, almost diametrically opposing facet to their sound on Ashen Snow, a piece that contains some of the most delicate and tender music Dirty Three have committed to record. Melodic piano lines emerge discreetly, as the violin wails gently around them before the intensity is ramped up for the ending. Sometimes I Forget You’ve Gone shares similar attributes, sounding like the results of a cold wind blowing over the drums, sending them crashing around the studio, whilst a softer breeze simultaneously kisses the keys on the piano.
This conscious attempt to keep their sound progressive and unanchored is undoubtedly one of the most satisfying aspects of Toward The Low Sun. Yet, they haven’t abandoned what made them such a vital, compelling band in the first place. Moon On The Land reasserts the classic, unmistakeable Dirty Three sound, distinctive violin and percussion forming streams of melancholic, almost painfully beautiful music that physically wrestles with your emotions. Likewise, on Rain Song Ellis’ violin sings a lament of sadness and despair whilst Rising Below sees the trio at their anguished, stormy and squalling best.
The album also sees them retain their ability to evoke sounds and imagery intrinsically associated with weather. They did this most memorably on the career-best Ocean Songs, a sonic paean to the cathartic, healing power of music in relation to human relationships, yet Toward The Low Sun also fares well in doing this, borne out by the names of more than half of the tracks being inspired by meteorological events of some kind.
This is strained, evocative music that is able to relay deep, complex human emotions in very direct terms. It almost makes you wish Nick Cave would consider slowing down and maybe take some time off, to allow Dirty Three the space and creative freedom to produce music like this on a more regular basis. Seven years is really too long to wait for the next instalment.