I'll lay my cards on the table - I prefer Envy's later stuff. Generally, given the choice between screamo and post-rock, I'd opt for the former. GY!BE, EITS, etc, are great and all, but give me a list that starts with Indian Summer and Saetia and then works through the last ten years of obscure emo bands, and I'll probably be happier. Though of course Envy, as a band that lies on the cusp of screamo and post-rock, still retains a wide appeal.
The thing is, I came into the band in their mid-to-late stage - A Dead Sinking Story to be precise - and while I really like some of the mid-to-early stuff (All the Footprints You've Ever Left and the Fear Expecting Ahead is more than a fine album, if a little confusingly titled) anything before that doesn't do much for me. What happened to me was that I got caught up in Envy's extraordinally creative stage, and the momentum has kept me going since. I'm not one of those people who think Envy were better "in their old days" before "they went slightly post-rock but still a great band"; Envy still are, and have been for a long time, even more than a great band.
(The person who said that, incidentally, has been bigging up a couple of Malaysian and Japanese screamo bands recently on his blog - haven't actually checked them out as of yet, but will do! Man, this blog has more plugs in it than a box full of 3-1 extension leads)
That personal explanation was by way of introduction to Envy's new EP, Abyssal; because if you didn't particularly like the Insomniac Doze album, you're unlikely to like this much either. The four songs pick up where that gentle, ponderous epic left off, with more long songs and considerably less screaming. Not that there's really all that much wrong with that, in my opinion, but bewarned. It still sounds "mild enough for the dentist's office" - as Pitchfork said about their last effort; "Your interest may well depend on your attention span".
The first track, 'A road of winds the water builds', breaks the ten-minute mark and contains within it most of the disparate elements to be found in Insomniac Doze's cinematic, slow-building and shifting soundscapes. Martial drumming, shifting arpeggios that move so slowly between pitches that they sound like string arrangements, drawn-out spoken word overlays, and of course, long, long climaxes. Not only does 'A road of winds' begin with a soft intro that is barely audible outside of a quiet room (warm or otherwise), it slides into near-silence halfway through - a bit reminiscent of the half-cacophony, half-catatonic nature of A Dead Sinking Story there - and end s with what appears to the ears as soft angelic singing. In sum, it's a very good song; I'm not exactly sure whether it does anything different, and I'm not sure if that's important.
'All that's left has gone to sleep', actually, offers something for the old-school Envy fan if he has managed to stay awake. Kicking off with a very recognizable 'ka-ka, kaka chuh' of stuttery, distorted guitar, it keeps the arpeggiated quiet bits and spoken-word interludes to a minimum. It rides, like its audible cymbals, from swell to swell of guitar noise. Unlike the last album, where "Tetsuya Fukagawa's tortured howl-- as if the band hadn't told him that they're no longer constantly aiming for red-- sits on top like an oil slick", now he has to strive to keep up with the song's energy. It even has a guitar solo in it which sounds like a guitar solo, and not like pure gold transmuted into sound waves. In a word, it rocks. However, I think I still yearn for the attractive glisten of the oil slick.
By contrast, 'Thousand Scars' is very much for the Insomniac Doze fan. Trilling, vibratory emo-peggio sustained over some six minutes, with a few loud steps into hyper-Spectorian, wall-of-sound screamo which really just amps up the arpeggio behind it. All very post-rock, and with the long, drawn-out chord progressions pinned to the quiet vocals and building crescendos, at some point you've got to stop trying to describe or categorize it, and just lie back and let it wash over you.
Finally, if 'Thousand Scars' connects firmly with Insomniac Doze, the last track, 'Fading Vision', stretches the connection back to A Dead Sinking Story. More electronic than electric, it is full of empty spaces, percussive sounds and fuzzy, quiet vocals - like 'A Color in Fetters' from the previous album; although running through it is a rhythm and a melody which seems more akin to the obvious softnesses of Doze.
Abyssal is a good EP; I'm not sure what its message is meant to be. It seems, roughly, that the first two tracks are songs of action, and the last two tracks more contemplative, but all the songs have something to offer; 'A road of winds' being the most encompassing, a kind of Envy for Dummies or, Learn Envy in (just over) 10 Mins. Seriously though, this is another significant step for a significant band. You can place your analytical knife where you wish (an image borrowed from Pirsig), or you could just listen to it...
'A road of waters the wind builds' (Just the first track, since it's a new release - there are plenty of other places to find the full thing to download if you want to.)
(For the intellectuals among us, it might be of interest to consider Envy as a creature of art from the East; according to Edward Said's Orientalism and its Foucault-inspired view of language, the Western critical tradition does not allow the East to speak for itself, to define itself. Envy obviously owe a great debt to the US hardcore community (and probably by now the charges have been reversed, not to mention the equal challenge from Europe) but is there something about the Japanese music scene whereby, as one blogger puts it, 'everything rock they touch turns to gold'? Pitchfork said that "with Insomniac Doze-- gone is the furious band that once expanded rock palettes with tricky arpeggios and lots of air. Instead, Envy have given themselves completely to their once dormant spacey impulses and time-lapse songwriting." Is that, not just a fair, but a valid critique of Envy? Or do we have to be bound by the idea that Envy still falls somehow between the cracks of hardcore and post-rock?)