As I sit listening to the winding journey of Daniel Bachman’s magnum opus, Axacan, I keep thinking about this passage from Olga Tokarczuk’s Flights:
“Standing there on the embankment, staring into the current, I realized that – in spite of all the risks involved – a thing in motion will always be better than a thing at rest; that change will always be a nobler thing than permanence; that that which is static will degenerate and decay, turn to ash, while that which is in motion is able to last for all eternity.”
Bachman is a seeker, never quite at rest, always chasing ghosts that hold answers, or at the very least offer a path forward. His music revels in that quest, asking questions about the world while turning inward, knowing the deepest clutches hold the hardest truths. Axacan sings in those spaces, a lone canary surviving the collapse of the coal mine, taking in all the horror and destruction, but still gently flitting through the chaos to find redemption in the sky. We don’t have to do what’s expected of us. Nothing has to follow whatever may be laid out before us, some of us with seemingly predetermined paths on the day we’re born. We just have to find a way to keep moving and stay above the water line.
Field recordings of buzzing insects, chirping crickets, quiet birds, and ocean waves, among others, give Axacan a sense of place. I hesitate to say it feels deeply American, but between themes Bachman explores, the sounds from his familial homestead in Ferry Farm, and the deep, exploratory rural roots, it’s hard to not go down that road. I certainly don’t believe in American exceptionalism or anything like that, but within these expansive aural walls is an attempt to chip away at the suffering that envelopes everything around us, to come to terms with the trauma left in our wake.
Bachman’s music hits the hardest in those moments, like the aching harmonium drones of “Blue Ocean 0” that seem to go on forever. It takes disaster to learn a lesson (h/t Tim Armstrong) and as we teeter on the precipice, the hum and grind on “Blue Ocean 0” pushes past the point of no return. It’s monolithic; overbearing. And yet, once the grinding tension runs out of steam, the soothing tones and repetitive chirps once again bring out the light. Once the price is paid, acceptance slowly, gently seeps in.
What pushes Axacan beyond being just another great record is the well-constructed vignettes and sound sculptures rooted in moments of tepid banality elevated into visceral, at times therapeutic, experiences. Rain shivers throughout “Blues in the Anthropocene” as Bachman scrapes forlorn guitar notes out of radio static, odes to a lost generation of rural intellectuals consumed by the burning world with no viable way out of the endless, decaying cycle. When a clutch of tools crashes like a sudden lightning bolt into a metal dumpster, it’s an abrupt end to ideas of escape; the ruins remain, plaguing those left who can’t help themselves by repeating mantras about repeating what we don’t repair.
In the contemplative burroughs of “Year of the Rat,” Bachman languidly plucks his guitar, letting notes hang for an extra few moments, like stolen glances of the person you love most in the world. As he picks up the intensity, still settling into a gentle embrace and never quite letting the strings run free, thoughts turn to the shoulders we stand on, the hidden hands that have pushed us through time to exist in this moment. Unbearable weight sits on our backs as Bachman keeps pushing, churning new blues, steel ringing like a halo searching for its keeper. Once the dam breaks, the tension fades and acceptance washes over your exhausted body.
History is a vicious mistress, but in the nighttime eeriness of “Ferry Farm” and the subterranean churn of “Deep Adaptation,” the unrelenting permanence of it all becomes a compartmentalized fixture within. We can’t outrun the calamities we’ve wrought, but we can try to hold firm against the tide. It’s a recognition that on our own, we are simultaneously insignificant and powerful enough to change course.
Axacan tells a story of the fear and loss that lengthy isolation brings, and discovers those aren’t the only fruits it can bear. When we start out, rarely do we end up where we think we’re going. Yet, we press on. Determination that swims in a sea of uneasy hope and resolve line the aural canyons of the stunning “Coronach.” Bachman returns to seed, opening the astral planes with his remarkable guitar style. Intensely wrought chord progressions glow with cathartic energy, pushing ahead until he simply can’t go any more. Reverence bleeds into the timbres of the strings, echoing into the cosmos like paper lanterns full of dreams rising to meet the fire above. Eyes closed, muscles aching, a small smile creeps out as the storms roll in.
In the sprawling confines of album closer, “Transmutation,” Bachman finds an anxious truce. It’s the hope that kills you, but it’s the hope that keeps you going. Deep bass drones roll beneath the surface, a foundation to build upon as his cautious picking is bathed in sanguine, golden tones. Simple kindnesses each day – toward ourselves and toward each other – can push the needle. Even if the world is lost, we can go down on our terms. We can pick each other up and do our best to pay for our father’s sins and, even if it’s only in the dying light, show there is a different way before the darkness comes.