Review: White Ward – Love Exchange Failure
Let’s get this out of the way: White Ward has made one of the best records I’ve heard this year. It encapsulates everything that makes a record great. Dynamic songwriting? Check. Transportive atmospheres? Check. Thematic cohesion? Creative and exciting? A bunch of talented musicians playing in total control at the top of their game? Check. Check. Fucking check.
Now for the background stuff. If you aren’t familiar with White Ward, they’re a four-piece outfit hailing from Odessa, Ukraine. Beginning in 2012, White Ward started life as a good post-black metal band, releasing a couple demos, a pair of EPs, and a three-way split. They showed a knack for mastering the common post-black metal tropes of building tension, quiet-loud/fast-slow contrasts, and high-register, reverbed tremolos shimmering above it all. It was nothing you hadn’t heard before, but it was executed very well and showed tremendous promise if they could translate quality musicianship into an identity, a Sound™.
White Ward delivered on that promise with their first full-length album, Futility Report, in 2017. They supplemented their post-black base with a unique mishmash of prog and jazz with a dollop here and there of death metal, electronica, doom, and hardcore. But the ultimate enhancement was a saxophone. Gorgeous, gorgeous saxophone. Whether featured or harmonized with the guitar work, the sax added a puzzle piece that completed the picture. It landed as Number 4 on Joaquin Stick’s 2017 AotY list who remarked “There’s absolutely no stagnation through the entire 40 minutes, every single experiment works, and I am in love with the overall tone.” Same, man. Same.
Now with follow-up album, Love Exchange Failure, White Ward takes what they started on Futility Report and brings it to a new level. Where Futility Report felt like a collection of excellent short stories, Love Exchange Failure is like a novel. The expression from start to finish is a complete musical narrative of a cityscape drenched in hardboiled noir. The streets are always wet and shine with streetlight. Smoke plumes in every alleyway. Crime is rampant.
And White Ward are here to make you see it all with exquisite detail from the opening title track. Police sirens wail in the background in conjunction with a sullen piano motif. Slowly, brushed drums and breathy sax come into view while the repeated piano becomes more and more insistent. The haunting tension can no longer hold. Ringing guitar breaks through and crashes into a tight drum fill while vocals fire off four bursts into the night. Then chaos. It’s a breathtaking start and a defining tone for the album.
Very good records have many moments like this, passages of immensity, feelings of dramatic significance. Great albums develop those passages throughout their length and build on them piece by piece to fashion meticulous settings of sound. Love Exchange Failure is a great album. The music rolls from moment to moment, coming in waves of time changes, varying urgencies, and fluctuating arrangements. While much of post-metal relies on relieving tension through uplifting climaxes to cap off a track, White Ward songs constantly ebb and flow with a sense of general unease permeating throughout. There is never a completely safe place as each door opens to some new corruption.
The pacing of the album matches the swelling internal logic of each track. Love Exchange Failure tells its story through five epic-length, gritty chapters interspersed with degraded piano, feedback-drenched and distorted vocal interludes, and a beautiful loungy piano- and bass-driven jazz track with captivating female cleans. The album flow reveals a different aspect of, and acts within, the narrative. The aforementioned back alleys of the opening title track, the yearning desperation of “Poisonous Flowers of Violence,” the isolating urban alienation of “Dead Heart Confession,” a descent into madness with the “Shelter” interlude, the false calm exploding to rage in “No Cure for Pain,” the smoke-filled lounge of “Surfaces and Depths,” and final act “Uncanny Delusions” surveys the entire scene and renders judgment. The album fits prog in the traditional sense of the word—not the self-indulgent wankery, but in how the album and songs progress.
I anticipate a few complaints about this record so I’ll address them here. Some may not think sax in metal is a good thing. I assure you, the sax (and piano) accompaniments are essential and well-considered elements providing definition, texture, and mood to each vignette. They offer everything from contemplative narration to wailing excess, to mournful dirges. If more albums integrated saxophone like this, there would be less controversy about its place in metal. Others may dislike the idea of interludes. I do, too. But these interludes are a part of the whole. They provide setting and necessary detail for the story. Still others may balk at song lengths (4 songs over 10 minutes and no song under 5). The dynamic and creative songwriting easily carries the weight of over an hour of music without wasting a note.
Love Exchange Failure succeeds at everything it sets out to do. It is a genre-defying masterwork flowing from the evident sweat and skill of White Ward’s members. I hope to listen to it for years to come and I hope you do, too. Apologies to the band for not giving this a 5/5. I don’t feel comfortable with a perfect rating without a lot more time. But just know that for now, you’re as close as it gets.