Wooden Mask is the fifth album from London based musician Alexander Shields who records under the alias of A Grave With No Name. Shields has described it to be primarily inspired by the theme of renewal, and specifically the idea of masks being tools that contribute to this process of change. The theme reveals itself slowly over the course of the album but what is immediately clear is the sense of beautiful introspection and quiet sadness that cloaks the album.
The early stages are predominantly defined by Shields’ fragile, naked voice and lone guitar but the album grows in sound the further you venture in. The opening passages show an estranged world-weariness but one which also has a heightened emotional sensitivity. These opening songs also points towards a reference point that never leaves the album, namely Sparklehorse. A sense of defeated resignation weighs heavy from the outset and later also resurfaces on Wedding Dress and House, although these later tracks benefit from driving, widescreen guitar.
Mask and Mist both possess a downcast air that recall Elliott Smith at his most separated and alienated although, perhaps paradoxically, it isn’t difficult to see how for some this despondency could have a cathartic and empowering effect. These tracks are also where the aforementioned lyrical theme of change and transformation presents itself most clearly, Shields imparting subdued lines on how “we sweep up dust but must learn how to become it” before concluding that he must “sleep on the frozen ground and listen for your songs”. It’s a grounding, sobering experience, but one that will also provide succouring comforts to those in need. The album also recalls Mount Eerie and Grandaddy at their most lo-fi and abandoned.
The second half of the album see a slight widening of sound. Pelt is a short ruminative instrumental while Black Sage, Pt 2 has a late period Mogwai feel. On this basis the subsequent release of a new instrumental album Pocketknife makes even more sense. Storm continues the post-rock aesthetic, this time sounding much more direct and pressing before I Set Fire To My Boat and Tape purposefully help the album quietly drift to a close.
The nature of the album seems to suggest added advantages in possibly listening to it at the extremes of the day, whether early in the morning or late at night, being infused with a palpable sense of recoiling and retreat. It’s an album where the circumstances under which it is heard maybe assume greater importance than others, but if these are right, Wooden Mask represents a deep and rewarding exploration of the human psyche and personal vulnerability.