‘For those who struggle. For those who fight.’ This dantean inscription greets the listener as they open the front panels of the digipack-edition of Spoiwo’s sophomore full-length. Six years after the release of their critically acclaimed debut album Salute Solitude the Polish post-rock outfit have returned with a daring opus that sees them treading new ground, both sonically and thematically, to create an illuminating and deeply therapeutic experience.
Consisting of eight songs and running for almost 40 minutes, Martial Hearts’ primary physical manifestation is the aforementioned digipack CD of which the plain black front cover is adorned by two gold embossed lines. The imagery of these lines is beautifully fragile. One line leaning into the other –will it support? Will it fall over? It’s a frozen moment in time that speaks of uncertainty as well as intimacy. The art inside the Digipak features a matrix of similar straight lines with a gap where the pair of lines from the front cover should be. It has a sense of authoritarianism, which is certainly reinforced by the album title. However, with its obvious but clever word play, Martial Hearts not only references war and combative traditions, but also love, passion, and life, speaking equally of humanity as it speaks of the machine.
In an online interview with Dziennik Bałticki, synth player Krzysztof Zaczyński calls Martial Hearts ‘more eclectic [and] more volatile’ than Spoiwo’s previous album, Salute Solitude. Indeed, all songs on Martial Hearts lack traditional song structures with verses and choruses in favour of repeating beats and melodic phrases. Of all the songs “Taur” has the biggest post-rock template, but generally speaking it is obvious that with this album the band have all but abandoned their roots. One could even wonder whether Spoiwo had anything to do with post-rock in the first place. Salute Solitude was a very loud affair, dynamic in its own way, with a lot of layered guitars and emphasis on texture, but at the same time it was piano-heavy and touching on atmospheric black metal and dark ambient. In hindsight, it almost feels as if post-rock was never their main language, but just a vehicle for their sonic ambitions which seemed most fitting at the time. Nevertheless, Spoiwo’s music today is still about atmosphere and texture, with intense tremolo-picked guitars fading in and out of focus of the listener’s hearing, while infinitely ascending chord progressions lead the listener to subtle, but carefully orchestrated crescendos.
Case in point is the album’s first track “Wild Eyes” which serves as an apt introduction to the album. It feels like the future has arrived, the guitar lines ascending with big intervals give a sensation of taking flight while the intense layering of synths creates an overwhelming sensation. The accompanying music video shows a series of computer animations in a stark monochrome palette focusing on construction and deconstruction (production and destruction) of elements such as the human body. Halfway through the track there is a beautiful moment where the heavily distorted synths recede and the song itself is deconstructed to a subdued version of its beat. In this empty space, mashed piano tracks take the centre-stage drawing attention away from the intense pace of the track, and towards a muted world of subconscience. As if the senses are dulled and the listener is offered refuge in the suppression of sound. A momentary relief before the drop. There is a special role for the colour red – the only colour present – which gives rise to associations such as blood and, by extension, life, but also alarm, danger, cutting lasers and heat. A sphere as a symbol of the mind, of intellect, and a droplet as the symbol of the heart, of feeling.
In comparison, the demure “Two Mountains” feels like an anti-climax and perhaps it is not the most suitable track to follow up on the intense energy of the aforementioned album opener. Then again, what could possibly follow up to such an intense outburst of energy? The choice for a muted track becomes the more logical and sophisticated option after repeatedly listening to the album. In the wake of the album opener’s violence, Spoiwo take the opportunity to introduce a new element to their musical impresario – the voice. “Two Mountains” is dominated by the deep and distorted voice of guitarist Piotrek Gierzyński, which lends the track a downbeat atmosphere that is hard to shake.
“Even though Martial Hearts will not necessarily make one ‘see the light’ in the sense that it offers relief, it does constitute an invitation to explore the conflicts outside ourselves, to examine our feelings and our struggles pertaining them, and to see our own inner conflicts more clearly.”
This heavyhearted feeling is carried over to the rest of the album, which fails to deliver catharsis in the form of a triumphant climax or a moment of great relief. Over the course of its eight songs, Martial Hearts builds the listener up with its ascending chords and melodies (“Riot Sons”, “Taur”) but it also dehumanises and exposes the frailty of structure with its blipping electronic beats (“Ghost of Chance”, “Oyum”, “Taur”), while ensnaring the listener in the despondency of gloomy distorted vocals (“Wounds”, as well as the aforementioned “Two Mountains”). These conflicting atmospheres prevent the listener from reaching a climactic point of closure, and as such Martial Hearts is a rather heavyhearted affair. In spite of its seemingly encouraging motto, it does not inspire true hope.
This conflict also resonates in the band’s communication about the album in the media. Considering its motto, it’s obvious that Martial Hearts was created with some sort of activism in mind. Even though it does not become apparent from the song titles or lyrics, the album seems to hint at strife and conflict. In the aforementioned interview Krzysztof Zaczyński elaborates: ‘Our awareness as a band is deepening. We cannot look away from the things that are happening. The album in a way reflects the moods and emotions related to political matters.’ Rather openheartedly, Zaczyński continues to detail how the sociopolitical situation in Poland has affected him personally, in contrast with guitarist Piotr Gierzyński, who relativises his bandmate’s remarks in an interview with local news website Trojmiasto.pl. ‘This album is a record of a six-year period and the political thread for me is only the background, the context for much more important threads.’ Apparently Zaczyński and Gierzyński both have different views on the intention behind Martial Hearts.
In other parts of their respective interviews, both musicians use the theme of struggle to characterise the power dynamics during the creative process of writing the album. As Gierzyński notes, ‘the question of what to verbalise, what to relate to, what relates to us or what our sociopolitical sensitivity is, is not always agreed upon among the band and is often the subject of dispute.’ This ambiguity is reflected in the music which, as noted before, leaves the listener without a moment of true catharsis.
One could wonder whether Martial Hearts’ vague statement of intent is powerful enough – there are many more records that make a clearer statement against social injustice. Instinctively speaking, “Wild Eyes” with its overwhelming synths and bombastic buildup should have been the album’s climax, but by placing it at the front, it serves as a bold signal and an invitation to the listener to further explore their feelings about their personal conflicts, beyond pure rage, beyond angst and beyond sadness.
The ambiguity in Spoiwo’s intentions adds to the album’s universal appeal and timeless quality, which could be characterised as a deeply therapeutic experience. Even though Martial Hearts will not necessarily make one ‘see the light’ in the sense that it offers relief, it does constitute an invitation to explore the conflicts outside ourselves, to examine our feelings and our struggles pertaining them, and to see our own inner conflicts more clearly. Martial Hearts captures the nature of struggle in gripping sounds and textures, while creating an experience of conflict that is universal, and above all deeply personal.
This album is… ****illuminating.
Martial Hearts was released independently on January 30. The album is available on CD as well as digital download via the Spoiwo Bandcamp-page.