In seven years together, Brooklyn’s The Antlers have created a quiet revolution in thought and sound with their harrowing and often haunted tales of love unmoored, human frailty and emotional evisceration.
On Familiars, their fifth album, The Antlers — vocalist / guitarist Peter Silberman, multi-instrumentalist Darby Cicci, and drummer Michael Lerner — have resumed the journey they began with 2009’s Hospice and continued over the next two albums Burst Apartand Undersea, which found the trio picking their way through a labyrinth of fear, doubt, love and loss against a backdrop of layered textural songs that were as deeply atmospheric as they were anthemic.
More hopeful in mood than its predecessors, the new album emanates a palpable release of despair and an almost operatic verve on nine songs that took shape over the past year and a half.
Familiars moves the Antlers’ emotional and spiritual odyssey further, alongside a palette of sounds that soar and retreat under a canopy of electronic trappings and the steady arrhythmic heartbeat of Lerner’s unnerving drumming. A choir of funereal horns function as a second voice across the songs.
“I wrote the trumpet arrangements as a sort of emotional antagonist,” explains Cicci. “In some ways it acts as more of conscience to an otherwise omniscient narrator. Other times, it’s about giving a voice and personality to the dark, unsympathetic nature of reality – as an obstacle to the narrator’s quest for enlightenment.”
This duality is a persistent force throughout the record, guiding an exploration of the divided self and giving rise to the idea of a Familiar — rather like a guardian angel, your shadow, or your consciousness.
“If there was ever a time when you felt completely lost and you were able to appear to yourself, to give yourself advice and shed light on your situation, what would that be like?” asks Silberman.
Familiars not only shows what that would be like, it demonstrates how that’s achieved over the arc of nine songs.
“I wanted to explore that conversation we’re constantly having with ourselves throughout our lives. So I began to write and sing as two sides of the same person, as estranged twins trying to find each other in a shared mind, and eventually traveling together through a maze of malleable memories.”
“For awhile, I’ve been focused on what it means to be present, and how difficult that can be, living in a world created by your past. The past can be a comfortingly painful place, and it’s easy to get stuck there. In that sense, I think of Familiars as a rescue mission.”
It took The Antlers a year and a half to transform that world into a symbolic and musical language. Recorded by the band at their studio in Brooklyn, Familiars represents an evolution in the band’s musicianship and creative process.
“I’m not sure we really were having any kind of synchronicity back when we started the record. We came together into that through the recording,” says Cicci.
“We became really obsessed with Alice Coltrane’s Journey in Satchidananda, Charles Mingus’ The Black Saint and The Sinner Lady, and Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew,” he adds. “In the context of starting a record, they represented an almost spiritual self-expression, fugue-like repetition of themes, and the liberation of using pure discovery as a finished work.”
“We wanted to connect to the humanity of music from the past,” adds Silberman. “To capture grace and the heart within those performances.”
So this time around The Antlers made a soul record in the truest sense of the word. Sure, they inundated themselves with Al Green, Nina Simone, and The Memphis Boys, but really they were making music about that mysterious and ineffable part of yourself. The metaphysics behind the physics: They found that they had made a record that was able to express the unseen.