Wastelanders - Cosmic Despair [Basses Frequencies - 2012]When not playing fast as part of thrash metallers Harpoon the Chicago-based multi-instrumentalist Dean Costello is brooding alone as Wastelanders. Bleak by name and bleak by nature, he describes the project as having a focus on "things which are quite distressing", such as war and poverty, to encourage "positive change".
His first release, fittingly titled "Total Desolation", lived up to its name by channeling a grim attitude through long, blackened solo guitar rushes, saturated with a crusty distortion, that alternated with sputtering keyboard passages. But here on Cosmic Despair, Costello's second solo release, a heavily tranquilised church organ dominates to create a work that's more melodic and melancholic than his barren philosophy might imply. Indeed, the sluggishness of the doped, droning organ slowly wears off as the album progresses to describe some kind of reconstitution.
Instead of the rough textures of Wastelanders' debut, Cosmic Despair rides a smooth, if lonely, passage on extended, ominous tones. Following a similarly stubborn and moody pace to Dylan Carlson's Earth, it opens with organ tones spilling like mist across a moor, its stark, devotional chords creating throbbing harmonics with a heavy low-end. By the time we reach the title track, stellar associations encouraged by the galactic imagery of the packaging, suggest a glide across the vast vacuum of space. The slowest of chord changes paint an elegiac drift in search of life, where the bleakness is offset by a yearning quality, to provide a glimmer of hope in the otherwise empty skies.
The penultimate track, 'Expanding the Mental Universe' breaks the morose mould with short, fidgeting soloing keys, bright yet solitary like a satellite, until the buzz of guitar noise filters through to touchdown on a primordial pool of dancing textures. The revitalised hint of hope concludes in almost jubilant form with the album's longest piece, 'The Crossing', whose twenty minutes explore an American midwest (perhaps influenced by the novel of the same name by Cormac McCarthy) through freely twanging guitar refrains travelling through a landscape of tremelodic organ patterns. Around the halfway mark a peppy percussive accompaniment on tambourine and hand-drums create a campfire scene, their wake filled with glowing embers of guitar before an empowered organ rises out of its murk to stride forward on this brave new world.
With limited means Wastelanders portray less a dystopian now than a lonely quest for companionship, perhaps as an allegory for "positive change". It's an evocative journey whose bleak attitude is overtaken by a feint sense of hope in spite of the otherwise nihilistic evidence that surrounds us.Russell Cuzner