October 14, 2023

Nothing is off-limits for this ambitious, large-scale concept…

Well, it’s taken a while, but alongside autumn’s arrival comes Communion, the sophomore album from Austin, Texas-based Xander Rapstine and his band of merry musicians collectively known as Proud Peasant. Their 2014 debut Flight has been a mainstay on my stereo system since its release (occasionally joined over the last couple of years by the odds ‘n sods compilation Peasantsongs), but now that the proper follow-up is finally upon us, it’s time to hear what this lot has come up with for the second instalment of their planned trilogy known as It Does Not Cease. The first thing we find is a comforting sense of continuity. Not only does this new release pick up right where the last one left off, but the abrupt conclusion leads me to believe that the final instalment (apparently to be called Dreeing the Weird) will follow suit, its own ending likely looping back to the beginning of Flight… it does not cease, you see. This large-scale, ambitious concept seems right in these folks’ wheelhouse, and I’m happy to report that with Communion, they have delivered another quality slab of intriguing compositions that bend styles and transcend genres.

An Embarrassment of Riches is the album’s compelling opener, its five-minute instrumental intro darting nimbly from doomy mystery to sweeping drama to galloping triumph. A noteworthy evolution in the band’s history comes with the singing of lyrics; whereas Flight used wordless voices in more of a textural role, Communion sees the introduction of full-on lead vocals. These enter the fray underscored by jazzy guitar chords, percussion, organ, and klarnet, and as the piece progresses through a Santana-like interlude into a closing march, there’s a satisfying jump to double time. Whew! This leadoff track is a winner, and not only showcases the range of the Peasant’s influences but their own spirit as well, encapsulating everything I’ve admired about their music for close to a decade. When I reviewed Peasantsongs in 2021, I noted that it’s a rare thing for a modern band to blend their influences well enough that they achieve their own sound in the process, and they’ve only expanded on that here.

As the album continues, we are treated to an even more diverse array of sounds, moods, and styles. The sprightly instrumental A Thousand Cuts, for example, locks into a groove which grows in intensity – something the Peasants do very well – yet it still finds a spot for a sultry and extended saxophone solo which eventually leads to a climax of ritualistic percussion. Nothing is off-limits, and while it’s up to the listener to decide whether every risk pays off, the freedom in this music is evident, and that can only ever be a good thing.

A Web of Shadow may sound like a fantasy novel, but is in fact a song in three parts; essentially a rock number which alternates between breezy verses and noisy, distorted choruses bookended by a theme played in two distinct styles. While A Storm of Swords (another fantasy novel title) might be the most conventional piece on the album… but on an album like this, that’s not to say it’s without its quirks. For example the hypnotic quality to the synths which sound like old sci-fi/alien frequencies, accompanied all the while by insistent, heavy riffing. Guitarists Rapstine – an admitted King Crimson obsessive – and David Houghton allow their Frippian tendencies to spill out and pervade this track, which also benefits greatly from the tasty drum work of David Hobizal. I don’t think it’s going out on a limb to suggest that Red-era Crimson fans will appreciate this one.

The 19-minute whirlwind journey The Fall incorporates clever callbacks of various motifs from throughout the album (as well as an ‘a-ha!’ reprise of a main theme from Flight, for the trainspotters among us), and a droning finale that conjures memories of Pink Floyd’s Echoes from Live at Pompeii. Although there’s an awful lot going on, The Fall is not an overtly challenging listen… nor is it a simple one. With dizzying time shifts, epic cinematic scope, whiplash tempos, and moments of pure, real beauty, this monster track is not only the centerpiece of Communion, but one of the top highlights of the Peasant catalogue thus far. It’s no surprise that it’s the closing track, as anything following it would seem anticlimactic! (Well, that and it would spoil that whole continuity vibe I mentioned at the outset.)

I like any album that leaves me guessing as to what comes next, even after I’ve heard it multiple times. Is it going to be folky mandolin, frenzied guitar, prog rock whimsy, or even joyous yuletide vibes (as on Canticle of the Risen, the opening section of penultimate track Shibboleth)? Who knows… this band’s vaulting ambition and the bare boldness of their eccentricity is what makes them. They’ve expanded their boundaries but their memorable melodies and compositions remain flush with charm, and it’s a pleasure to dig in to this latest chapter in their ongoing story. I don’t know how long it will be until Dreeing the Weird sees the light of day, but in the meantime, I suggest we all partake in Communion… and then get in line to do it again.