Cleansing Silence is an album released by the San Antonio-based the Way to Light in early October, 2014. The album consists of six fairly lengthy tracks that attempt to straddle both the dark folk and dark ambient genres—a sound that the artist describes as, “an ode to that which can only exist in a solace of silence.”
The Way to Light began in 2012 as the solo endeavor of its lone member, Austin Rathmell, and already has seven releases attributed to its name. As advertised, the music on Cleansing Silence definitely attempts to juggle two genres simultaneously. Is this a dark ambient album incorporating folk elements, or is it an atmospheric folk CD with a stronger emphasis on ambiance? Regardless of the folk or ambient elements, the music showcased on Cleansing Silence defines the Way to Light as a truly “dark” project. Not “dark” as a synonym for folk-noir or apocalyptic sounds, but “dark” in the literal sense of an absence of light. From the colorless packing, minimal sounds, whispered lyrics, and even the band’s own namesake, the journey on Cleansing Silence is darkness incarnate.
The album doesn’t just attempt to flawlessly mix these elements, however; it alternates between the dual genres, with “Consuming Light” and “Twilight Bearings” being true dark ambient tracks, while “Hollow Roots,” “Heirs of the Sun,” and “Visions of Pale Obscurities” exist further within the folk end of the spectrum. The final track of the album, “Cleansing Silence,” is the climax that the listener anticipates: the moment when Rathmell finally attempts a cohesive combination of both styles.
The three folk tracks all feature slow, subdued acoustic guitar that echoes out over top of extremely muted synth rumbles and hums. The music is quite pleasant as opposed to the isolated and vacuous feeling one gets when listening to dark ambient tracks, and perhaps that’s due to the guitar presence which really helps to dispel that empty feeling. The paradox comes in regards to the execution of the vocals, which are mostly whispered and occasionally barely audible. The effect works on tracks such as “Hollow Roots,” wherein the breathy whispered vocals could be synonymous with a gentle wind passing through the exposed roots of an ancient tree. The lyrics that the Way to Light uses on these tracks are actually visually poetic and contains some clever rhymes.
For example, in “Hollow Roots,” Rathmell conveys:
Lessons carved in stone
For the blind to gaze upon alone
A vision obscured by our own emanation
The burden of Light
Incandescence removed from out sight
The problem is that the poetry that is contained within these songs cannot be discerned due to the execution of Rathmell’s vocals. Without the aid of a sheet of lyrics, one is on their own to actually enjoy his words, and thus a particularly important question arises: should vocals be more in service of the music, or in service of the lyrics? The Way to Light chooses the path of service to the music, which amounts to a decent enough result, but eventually undercuts what the project is trying to accomplish. “Heirs of the Sun” is the dark folk song that comes closest to a perfected mix: the vocals are “croaky” but more discernible, and the guitar work and empty atmosphere sound reminiscent of Black Light.
While the folk elements ultimately fail to elaborate on the project’s texts, the dark ambient tracks are where the Way to Light really shines. Folks who enjoy the roster of imprints from Cyro Chamber to Cyclic Law will no doubt identify with and appreciate these tracks immensely, though the music is not spacey or desolate, such as with the former’s Sabled Sun. There is still a sense of emptiness with occasional flourishes to keep things from getting too empty, however, such as in the track “Twilight Bearings” which incorporates crystalline sounds against a subtle windy backdrop. The final track on the album, “Cleansing Silence,” is almost an entirely dark ambient instrumental, with just a sprinkling of vocals. It is not quite the perfect mix of ambient music and vocals, such as the way Halgrath pulls it off, but again, it shows the Way to Light bravely incorporating the two genres together and doing an admirable job of it.
The album is packaged in a foldable cardboard sleeve that lacks credits, lyrics, or other text save for the project and album titles on the spine. The artwork depicts klecksographic treetops in stark grayscale against a marbled sky, perhaps giving visual cues to the tracks “Hollow Roots” and “Twilight Bearings.” It strays a bit more towards minimalism, and may not shed much light on this “way to light” allusion, but its simplicity is sufficient enough to compliment the music.
As a folk artist, the Way to Light still needs to find their footing. While the acoustic elements are enjoyable, the lyrical delivery is too muted and subdued to succinctly convey the project’s poetry. As a dark ambient project however, the Way to Light is leagues more successful at instilling a great sense of mood and atmosphere. Rathmell is definitely on the right path trying to merge the two genres; fans of more folkish elements may shy away, but fans of dark ambient will likely enjoy what Cleansing Silence has to offer.
01) Consuming Light
02) Hollow Roots
03) Heirs of the Sun
04) Twilight Bearings
05) Visions of Pale Obscurities
06) Cleansing Silence