by Quentin Gibeau (@Gibonobo)
Arbor Labor Union’s name is a metaphor for their roots starting together and their efforts reinforcing one another, equivocating a healthy forest to a healthy and loyal group of friends. Both roll deep. And continuing with their anthropomorphic theme, the Atlanta based band want to let their volume speak for the plants, and they want the plants to speak to you. On their album I Hear You, the band leads us through its vision for the universe, a belief system that includes spectral elemental guides, mission statements, mantras, and a Tolkien-like road map to fill in the gaps. This map, and the album’s accompanying lore (available on the Sub Pop website), touches lightly on exorphin theory -- the idea that plants are wise and have domesticated humans by evolutionary design. This is all in addition to mysterious transcendental transmissions and various other contextual geographies for the listener on their journey. Such things seem appropriate, as I Hear You is an album for the road, stretching out before you, inviting and full of possibility.
The band’s vocalist, Bo Orr, occupies the role of a cosmic spiritual gatekeeper manifested inside of a southern party uncle, like if Matthew McConaughey became Silver Surfer and flexed with the Zen wisdom of The Dude. “Mr. Birdsong” is where we meet this idea first, epically crafted to be monumental through simple delivery and convincing consistency of vision. Arbor Labor Union does not go off message. The album asks the listener to commit to its heavy beauty, like tossing a Molotov cocktail into a bonfire. The songs ask you to have faith in joy, especially in the chugging locomotion of the album’s rising action.
“Hello Transmission,” and “Radiant Mountain Road,” reinforces the narrative of the journey, propelling us with energy up winding switchbacks. “Volume Peaks,” the single of the album, thumps with familiar energy, calling on Nirvana’s “All Apologies” and Gish-era Pumpkins but building towards a jammed out ending that the band rides into the sunset.
“Babel” breaks up the first and second acts of the album, an urgent and optimistic intermission not unlike Against Me’s “A Brief Yet Triumphant Intermission.” “Belief’d” kisses at a Fugazi riff but covers it in the gossamer of a double guitar filling it with possibility. “Silent Oath” counters this and thumps with the wisdom and gravity of a R.E.M. reinterpretation. The album closer “IHU,” a reassuring call back to “I Am You,” utilizes its driving Kinks-like gauze to swing back to the band’s main sonic strength: the balancing of the palpable weight and heaviness of the riffs with a warm, tight clarity, giving the tones the feeling of sunlight. “The internal humming of the universe, it too abides,” as Bo tells us.
I Hear You utilizes volume as sculpture, building hypnotic pieces out of basic structures of classic rock and post punk. But rather than operating out of a sense of nostalgia, I Hear You uses these forms to enunciate a revelry that can only be enjoyed in sincere spirits. Arbor Labor Union is a unique band in our current musical zeitgeist, having emerged from The South without folk punk-vibes and seemingly post-irony, while also nodding to it in the album’s joyous tone, stoner sublimity, and basement show urgency. Yet I Hear You is secure in itself, at peace. “We’ve studied joy, it can be heard,” Bo says on “IHU.” This vibe, and content of the songs themselves, almost feels like Arbor Labor Union have stared into the void and the void is bright. They have safe passage into an oblivion that is Southern sun on a hot grass field, and letting the humid night wind flow through your hair on a moonlit stoned country drive, screaming into the night.