Review: Siem Reap ‘Now What?’

If you’re familiar with his work in Oathbreaker and Wiegedood you may have some expectations with regard to what to expect from Belgian guitarist Gilles Demolder on his first solo venture under the Siem Reap moniker. You should abandon them if they, to any degree, contain any notion of heaviness that involves the harshness or cacophony of those bands, and prepare instead for something that’s much more accessible musically, but considerably heavier on an emotional level.

Siem Reap ‘Now What?’

Demolder is working with a very different spectrum of sounds on Now What? and while not even remotely in the metal playing field his two better established projects occupy, it’s not as different as you’d think in some ways – certainly neither of those bands are entirely without melody, and Oathbreaker have been unafraid to experiment with more textural and atmospheric moments of calm. But this album is a stripped-down affair that feels like a home recording, or at least like Demolder is playing these songs to you in your or his living room.

Nominally you could throw around terms like slowcore, or shoegaze, but ultimately, they’re probably just as useless a description as referring to his other bands. No, what Demolder has made here is a quiet, thoughtful indie rock (to use an extremely blanket term) record. While at times the heart-on-sleeve lyrics, and drowsy nature of the music, might share a vague DNA with Mount Eerie, Sun Kil Moon or even Grandaddy in feel, it doesn’t quite sound like anything else out there.

Now What? feels furthermore like a deeply personal record, an intimate account of the inside of Demolder‘s head, the highs and lows, the in-betweens. He sings to us in an almost hushed voice, sounding both nervous and confident at the same time, pouring out his head and heart in an almost stream of conscious manner. Is this the real Gilles? Is it a fictionalised or exaggerated version of the songwriter? It’s hard to tell. It might not matter in the long run given the emotion the songs are invested with, and how clearly he communicates with us, even though he seems somehow distant and reluctant to do so.

We start with his love/hate relationship of his hometown on Might As Well Stay, an acoustic guitar and sustained droning keyboard ushering in his whispered thoughts, before being joined by drums and a beautifully fuzzy guitar. You have to strain to hear his voice. It’s like he’s telling you something but is shy as to how you’ll react. And on the following Oh The Guilt, when his voice does breakthrough more clearly in the latter stages to intone ‘you’ll run out of tarmac to pave the way’, you realise he’s externalising an internal conversation that maybe we aren’t supposed to hear.

It’s a fascinating experience to hear Demolder stripped of his musical armour and presenting such a seemingly candid musical self-portrait…

Demolder‘s leisurely, melancholic songwriting is often based around the simplest of elements, tweaked ever so slightly. An acoustic guitar is treated to sound like a warped tape over a lazy drum loop on Honigkuchen, making it feel dreamlike and nostalgic. Godelieve’s Synthesiser is a short blast of organ, with the man himself joining in to sing along wordlessly towards the end. There’s an amazing moment on Oh The Guilt where the spectre of his metal career rears up briefly for a beautiful dual guitar line that could have come off a classic 90s doom metal record, then disappears just as quickly.

All these elements – these half-whispered confessions, the technicolour sadness of the keyboards and gentle guitars – are imbued with a sort of uplifted sadness, if that makes sense. Now What? is often the musical equivalent of that friend who you know is suffering from depression deep down but will always put a brave face on it around everyone. It’s hugely affecting.

The centrepiece of course is the ten minutes of Happiness Is Other People, which is a simple but frankly incredible piece of songwriting. Gilles recounts daily conversations both internal and external about the ups and downs of being a touring musician, and how it affects his non-touring life over a lilting, vaguely Kozelek inspired lament. He sings both ‘I feel okay but my temper’s been fucking with me’ and ‘please be nice to me’ and somehow both seem entirely logical, before delivering the devastating truth: ‘the world’s done me a lot of favours but I think my luck has run out’.

There’s a quiet power to Now What? that’s compelling in a way a lot of more aggressive music simply can’t be; a magnetism, a comfort and familiarity. It’s a fascinating experience to hear Demolder stripped of his musical armour and presenting such a seemingly candid musical self-portrait. It’s a bold statement perhaps, not knowing what the intentions or plans are for this project going forward, but it’s the most exciting thing Demolder has done, even considering his back catalogue to date and how relatively different it is to said work. A late contender for album of the year, and certainly the most bewitching.

Label: Isolation Records
Band Links: Facebook | Bandcamp | Instagram

Scribed by: Jamie Grimes