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Posted by on June 8, 2019 at 10:12 am

Texas instrumental group Driving Slow Motion prides itself on delivering “cascading dynamics and atmospheric melodies” to spark “a surreal sonic experience that both captivates and entrances.” Influenced by revered acts like Explosions in the Sky and Sigur Rós, the quintet—Carter Stark (bass), Dustin Weaver (drums), and Bryan Freymuth, Jason Reed, and Nick Valdez (guitars)—successfully crafts atmospheric and emotional aural worlds on their debut LP, Arda. However, the sequence is sometimes too empty and monotonous, dragging out minimal ideas beyond their usefulness instead of combining several into fewer yet more substantial pieces.

Mixed by Mike Watts (Glassjaw, The Dillinger Escape Plan), Arda (whose title comes from “the name given to Earth… in J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings legendarium”) is inspired by the band’s individual and communal introspective “journey[s].” Each track indeed conveys strong emotions—ranging from sorrow to anger—with varying degrees of complexity and intensity. While that makes nearly each one special in its own way, the cumulative effect runs the gamut from hypnotic life-affirmation to distancing tedium.

Driving Slow Motion (photo provided by Earsplit PR)

Some of Arda’s best passages are its quietest. Opener “Far From Home,” for instance, is sparse yet brooding, with light percussion, primordial effects, echoed guitar notes, and affective childlike chirps creating a softly devastating environment. Granted, it does get bleaker and rougher near the end (striking a fine balance a la Alcest at their most temperamentally transcendental), but it’s mostly a drab and vacant affair. Later, “Of the Sea” channels Agalloch by scattering inventive drumming throughout its meditatively wistful guitar strums and subtly feisty bass lines. As for the penultimate “Hallowed Hills,” it effectively ushers in a feeling of delicate catharsis after a tumultuous and prolonged experience.

Of course, the record also intrigues during its heavier and more elaborate passages. A slow apocalyptic build, “The Way the World Was” eventually rises to a cascade of gutsy syncopation and interlocking six-string chaos. All the while, Stark keeps it absorbing through his simple yet melodic contributions. Correspondingly, “In Exchange For a Memory” is a dreamlike hodgepodge of sublime asides, panicked ferocity, and even some electronic beats. Perhaps the best of these, however, is “Shadow & Flame (The Deep Pt. I)” due to its hopelessly morose soundscapes (in the guise of Godspeed You! Black Emperor but with less space between the disarray).

Those positives notwithstanding, most of the compositions on Arda would benefit from either shorter durations or more happening within those durations. Either way, there’s a lot of untapped potential in terms of making each moment count, as several motifs are established well enough but are never really developed or spiced up sufficiently. This is especially true on “Windows in a Stone Wall,” “Laurelin,” and closer “The Dawn Voyage,” all of which contain engrossing sparks that never burn as fully or brightly as they could. Rather, they’re merely extended origins of profundity that never get to go any further.

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Taken in one sitting, Arda is a bit of a dreary chore; yet, it still leaves enough of an impression to stay with you and cement Driving Slow Motion as a promising newcomer within the genre. Granted, albums like this work best in certain spaces—mentally and physically—so your mileage may vary. In any case, there are hints of greatness scattered around the sequence, so here’s hoping that the quintet fully unleashes it on the follow-up.

Score: 7/10

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