You know someone's not aching for commercial acceptance when they call themselves a collective of musicians performing improvisational sound pieces and then kick off their third album with an instrumental piece of droning space rock that lasts for sixteen minutes. It's called Paragate and it finds its groove quickly, with drones underneath and space rock chirps over the top. Gradually the bass makes itself more obvious and it moves into a more traditional space rock mode as it speeds up. It ends more like Hawkwind than it begins. It begins like krautrock, which is probably the most effective way to look at this.
We could easily call Paragate a test, because less open minded listeners aren't going to make it to the second song and that's probably fine, because this isn't for them. Anyone who does will find a song of an altogether different length, Lamentum not even making it to three minutes but doing what it does just as well as Paragate did over sixteen. That bass, courtesy of Tobias Brendel, finds its purpose easiest here; even though it only has a five note refrain, it provides the melody that's crucial to the piece, until the vocals show up to serve as a counter. There are no lyrics here, just an instrument that happens to be a human voice.
There's a Tangerine Dream vibe to these pieces that seems counter-intuitive, given that this is an actual band playing the usual instruments we expect a rock band to play: guitars, bass and drums, along with synthesiser work from Alexander Meese. Tangerine Dream weren't always just synths, but that tends to be how we think of them, and Shem try to achieve the same thing here that they did in the early seventies, as they shifted from purely experimental mode into the unlikely success of the Virgin years. Refugium, the twelve minute soundscape that wraps up the album is the most like Tangerine Dream, merely framed as a post-rock band.
In many ways, Refugium is a combination of the first two songs. It's pure soundscape, built on the sounds of space rock, but a long way from Hawkwind. The vocal here is buried so far behind any of the instruments that we wonder if it's actually a vocal. Again, it's all vocalisations rather than any attempt to deliver lyrics, but it could easily be a musical instrument mimicking a voice. For all I can be sure, it could even be a sample, but I'd guess at one of these musicians in the studio. That bass makes its presence known again, even though it's almost submerged under the synths, and it has an even more stronger focus on drones.
In between is my favourite piece of music, which is Restlicht. It's much longer than the short song and much shorter than the long songs, but that still leaves seven and a half minutes for it to build. It's a stalker of a piece that finds a new influence that I wasn't expecting in the slightest. Often, it sounds like listening to the Bad Seeds without Nick Cave's voice ever joining in. It drifts further to krautrock as it goes, finding an almost industrial texture five minutes in. It plays with intensity at this point, testing how intense something intense stays if it stays intense, if that makes any sense at all. Contrasts are difficult when we don't move from one thing to another. This is almost asking us to contrast what it does with everything else we know.
And there's some of this in Refugium too, which makes it all the more appropriate piece to wrap up the album, somehow more of an epic than the opener, even though it's four minutes shorter. It has the bigger build, for sure, and it's more of a journey. There are moments late on where we almost end up in a guitar solo, but Alexander Gallagher resists the urge to get that traditional. There's an industrial feel here too, but one generated by bass and drums rather than synths, so it plays out in a very different way.
I can totally buy into this being improvised music, but music probably improvised on themes that a band of musicians already had in mind. As such, it feels loose but also focused, because everyone's working from a common inspiration. I liked this on a first listen, even though that daunting sixteen minute opener is my least favourite track here. However, I like it all the more on further listens. It's fascinating music, even if it is improvised, and I'm eager to check out those previous two albums, II, as you might expect, in 2021, and before that, The Hill AC in 2018.