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Review: Settler – Dark Heavens

On their much anticipated new full-length album, Settler drags punk rock and twinkly-emo tropes into the territory of the group’s own cantankerous dynamic. Dark Heavens is a record that wrestles with its own anxious energy, and it takes the entire mosaic of eight tracks to work out something meaningful to say.

Settler is a four-piece emo-punk band—guitar, bass, drums, and singer—from Worcester, MA, and a longtime familiar to the Lowell scene. Those who’ve seen them over the last few years know them for their clever guitar riffs and heavy bass-and-drums backbone, and for a scrappy, grating style of singing which seems to betray the poetically crafted nature of their lyrics.

Dark Heavens is the follow-up to two EPs released in 2014 and 2017, as well as a few live-session videos. With a higher production quality than any of their previous releases, the new record brings Settler’s distinctive qualities into clearer focus.

The album’s opener “Charming” is a good introduction to the band. Guitarist Tom Emery leads the way—his playing never quite establishes a melody, but the throaty, dissonant harmonies he produces strike on beauty.

Singer Curtis Emery enters in the verse and delivers his patchwork lyrics—a series of associative phrases and images, meant more to convey feelings than any cohesive thought. “Tiny gold hands reaching out for it cloudless logic evening’s terror grip,” Curtis Emery sings in the later half of the song, just after the rest of the band pulls to a jarring halt, then rejoins him hard on the next beat. This is one of several moments on Dark Heavens where the heavy visceral impact of the band drives in the essence of Emery’s lyrics.

“Growing Up” is one of the most lyrically evocative songs on the album. The upbeat mood of the music matches the bizarre-but-vivid images Emery throws out—“mountain bird song singing,” “grassblade cricket cross-legged thinking,” and “broken bike chain front wheel bleeding.” It’s clear he has a background in poetry, and Dark Heavens is a joy to read along to front-to-back.

“Glaciers” may be the most memorable song on the album, with its anthemic hooks and fuzzed out chords. Tom Emery’s unique guitarwork is most graceful on this one.

Dark Heavens dips steadily into a depression about halfway through. The instrumentals begin to sound plodding and reverberant, and the songs in general are less catchy and more spaced-out. It’s as if the natural high the record set off on with “Charming” dissipates. The lyrics at the end of “Chaos Magick” seem to acknowledge the shift; “funny how these things turn out / funny how the sky bleeds out and pushes you to yourself.”

Lyrically, the songs on Dark Heavens seem trapped between an effort to hold on to euphoric moments, and the debilitating pulls of depression and anxiety. The first is done through outward focus; feeling connected to the natural world, things like “mornings,” “the sun,” and “bird song singing.”

But the album’s penultimate tracks are acutely self-deprecating. “Untitled” is a fast-paced, anxious track in which drummer Jimmy Mullen skips a half-beat here and there. It’s as if the band is trying to trip up and their own singer. Emery sings, insistently during the hook, “I’m not asleep / I’m alive on my feet.”

One “Empty Bed” is the most downtrodden song of all. The song builds into a blurring torrent of digital reverb, then slowly fades out with a marching drum beat, played frustratingly off-time. “Trying to live wholly / Better luck next time,” Curtis emery sings. The song sounds like giving up—it would’ve been a horrible way to end the album.

Luckily we get the title track as a closer. “Dark Heavens” is like an exhausted sigh of relief. It begins with just palm-muted guitar and plenty of space for the words to sink in.

“Turning my head out within a good reason / open my hand it’s a memory / drawing the sun out my heavy hand trembling / gossamer life spirit everything.” The lines sound like something important being realized and accepted. Then the band comes in and carries the song victoriously to the end.

it reminds me of Jets to Brazil’s song “Sweet Avenue,” specifically the “captain of industry smoking famously / feet up on the windowsill / looking at all these trees I feel affinity with / everything so soft and still.” It’s the idea of looking contentedly at the world of things we can’t control.

To me, this album is about opening your mind out to the huge, wondrous natural world around us simply by observing what we can (”trees,” “birds” “mountains” “sun” and “cloud” are words that come up multiple times throughout the album). When we do this, we tend to appreciate how each of us is a miniscule but essential part of all of it. Dark Heavens is also about doing the exact opposite, focusing in too much on the mundane particulars of our individual lives, and how most of the time, our anxiety is measured out within our solitary minds. – Tom Stevens

For more info on Settler, visit: www.facebook.com/settlertheband