From the moment the listener presses play on Secrets of the Deep!, he knows that he is in for one quirky ride. It should not have come up as much of a surprise, seeing the album’s cover art, but then again, the cover does not always represent the contents well.
Hydrothermal vents are openings set deep in the sea openings from which blow out with very hot, element loaded water from the earth’s crust. Once we believed that all life on earth is sustained by energy received from the sun. Now we know that there are entire ecosystems of unique life forms that thrive despite never seeing the sun thanks to hydrothermal vents. Did the band of the same name choose these structures as a metaphor? I decided to find out for myself.
Secrets of the Deep! is a nine-track album released last month by Montreal-based duo John Tielli (vocals, guitar, midi programming) and Tessa Kautzman (vocals, bass). The post-punk, dance rock album manages to feel both retro and avant-garde through a combination of old and new sounds. Thankfully, not many deep sea sound effects are used; subtle ones are sometimes used (the singer sounds like he is singing in water near the end of “Out of Their Cages” for example). Between dreamy-sounding sequences, harmonies both wide and tight, spoken word, howls, and moments of auditory dissonance, the album seems to capture something of the movement of water, which is both organised and chaotic at the same time. Similarly, a range of genres seem to be sampled: hard rock, moments of heavy metal, classic rock, modern rock, progressive rock, pop moments, and electronica.
The album opens up with “Inside a Movie”, an upbeat piece that features elements that become part of The Hydrothermal Vents’ signature sound: duo vocals from Kautsman and Tielli, instruments used in a quirky way, and a certain quality to some of the vocals and notes that make them vibrate as if coming from behind a thin veil of water. The following mostly instrumental “Do the Vent” is the duo’s interpretation of old time, guitar-driven rock and roll will make you want to get up and dance. It’s as if they are trying to convey the power of a vent to give energy despite not being the typical source everyone turns to (i.e. the sun).
Life as a shark is described in the next song, titled, well, “Shark!” It’s quite a cute song, a bit of 1970s pop, an unusual ode to a fearsome prey that brings to mind a much more ominous sound. The contrast between the bubblegum, carefree-sounding melody and the lyrics discussing the thoughts of a prey intent on finding its next meal. The next track, “Out of Their Cages”, is chaotic, reminiscent of a beach where revelers are panicking at the sight of the aforementioned shark. That’s a very à propos feeling since the song is about the joy felt by animals who have escaped their cages.
The title track, a rock inspired piece, calms things back down, as if one is left alone after the animals have escaped. It is a bit of an ode to the hydrothermal vents that inspired the album in the first place. The energy these vents release seems to have made its way to the next track, “Neptune’s Grave” which, despite its name, if lively and upbeat. It takes a few listens to capture the meaning of the song, which turns out to be one of inspiration to take a chance on life. The shorter “Attento” is even more upbeat, a song that features lyrics throughout and doesn’t make much sense to me, despite being an intriguing listen.
The last two tracks on the album, “Hanz (Sleeping with the Starfish)” and “Fish Out of Land”, calm things down again, and up the dream-like component of The Hydrothermal Vents’ music. Just like with the rest of the songs, they are hard to describe. At times, it feels like the duo is jamming to whatever is walking by them, explaining the changes throughout the songs. There is also a certain gloomy melancholy that starts seeping through, as if the energy displayed throughout the album was all about avoiding an underlying sadness.
Secrets of the Deep! is a quirky, fun, attention-grabbing album which I do not think is for everyone. It is an experience of sorts, more to be taken as a whole than separately. It also requires of the listener to let go of preconceptions about music and to enter into the world created by the Montreal-based duo. I had a hard time understanding the lyrics and following the thread throughout the album. This is the kind of album that would benefit from a booklet to help listeners delve deeper (pun intended).
And I can’t help but imagine a Fantasia-like set of video clips to accompany these songs.