Spirit That Guides Us has left both lyrics and recording information out of the picture for Sand, The Barrier, the mysterious European combo's full-length debut. Instead, a six-panel, two-sided foldout tells a color-treated history of writing and recording the album, avoiding tangible details in favor of broad strokes and pointed close-ups. It's the same approach with the music. At its widest point, Sand, The Barrier is about the conjunction of indie rock and post-hardcore. "The Newly Improved Silence," a throbbing and melodic instrumental, could be something from the Chicago school of post-rock groove. Similarly, the title track is an opportunity for STGU's talented vocalist to show of his inner Isaac Brock over a subdued arrangement of clean channel guitar and -- accordion? The latter instrument's organic wheeze only sounds more unique when laid next to hulking, claustrophobic, post-hardcore like "Onwards" or "Spirit Anthem," which are closer to Poison the Well with their passion-filled whisper/scream vocals, jarring spikes of atonal guitar, and complicated arrangements. Of course, as is so often the case on the subcontinents of emo, screamo, metalcore, and the rest, Spirit That Guides Us isn't content to simply shuttle between large landmasses like mid-period indie or the various inroads of 21st century hardcore. Besides its varying nods to vintage post-punk and European prog metal, Sand, The Barrier is bookended by its most ambitious material. The album begins with a mess of processed weirdness, and a young man of indiscriminate accent wondering "Where is the spirit found/Beneath the wrecks of ships/Tossed far into the storms of sea...." He disappears just as quickly into the "soul of the world" (ahem), or rather, the song becomes something other than a stilted piece of poetry. Its storm of layered guitars builds steadily until gloomy shadows are cast over the brooding opening strains to "Interstellar Communication," which itself introduces the screaming harmony technique familiar to any latter-day emo kid. But those are only the album's first few moments. After 45 minutes of fervent, yet subject-ambiguous vocals, and cleverly, often wildly reassembled musical fragmentation, Spirit That Guides Us ends Sand, The Barrier with a delicate flutter. "Heaven Unseen, Hell Unknown" sounds like nothing other than Rufus Wainwright, as the vocalist's words waver in melancholy over a spare and tinny acoustic guitar. It's a beautiful track, like the first halting line of an artist's pencil on virgin white paper. But while its frailty makes a few of the album's more melodramatic moments much easier to swallow, it offers no more clues to Sand's motive or meaning. The album is, ultimately, as much a mystery as its creators, daring to be solved over repeated listens.
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AllMusic Review by Johnny Loftus