The church of the First Unitarian Congregational Society in Brooklyn Heights is a neo-gothic beauty; its vaulted ceilings rise in smooth organic lines like the bones of a long-abandoned ribcage, setting the stage for a night of lingering in the complexity of the lovely and horrific heart of our own mortality. For it was the 10th anniversary of The Antlers’ dream-logic masterpiece of love and death, Hospice, that brought the people to church, and time’s passing and the body’s frailness were on every mind.
When last we’d heard from songwriter Peter Silberman, he had released a devastatingly sparse solo album (2017’s Impermanence) that reflected his struggle with a debilitating onset of tinnitus. After all, although The Antlers could be described at many times as being a fairly delicate band, their live sound was thunderously loud and fully enveloping. The guitar tones would pour over you like a viscous gel until you were virtually paralyzed by the beauty and simultaneously shocked like a deer getting a car horn blared at it. It’s not overly surprising that this could do some pretty bad damage to the fragile organs of the human ear.
So the question presented itself going into this event: what *are* The Antlers now? What would remain of the dynamic and entrancing band from the first half of this decade? Did we enter the church for a funeral, or for a baptism?
As an opening act, touring member of the band, Tim Mislock, came to the stage to perform his looped electric guitar sound collages. The towering Viking of a man gently informed us that his mind would be on time spent as a caretaker of someone with Alzheimer’s disease while he played, but he invited us to go wherever our minds needed to go. It was part meditation and part sound therapy, adding up to a perfect introduction to the night’s essence.
The creaking and groaning of the wooden balconies under the feet of late-coming guests was at first a distraction in the quiet moments, but it became something like rain pounding on a rooftop as Mislock played. Strumming and droning and bleating, the pieces did carry me away, and I had to close my eyes several times to get to the heart of the sound and not be distracted by the icy blue light making Mislock look like a White Walker from HBO’s Game of Thrones. Yet another symbol of unavoidable death and decay.
Before The Antlers took the stage, the narrow vaginal-peaked door adjacent to the altar swung open and drummer Michael Lerner was birthed to ring a resounding bell three times, either an effort to get people into their seats (which was not a problem with this staid and respectful crowd) or as a way of purifying the air for the music that would soon pass through it. Lerner and Mislock came out, followed by Peter Silberman, a slight man with a humble bearing. Mislock had his electric guitar, Silberman had his acoustic, and Lerner was in the middle leaning over his single snare with only padded mallets or brushes in his hands at any given time. Looking like a retired rocker version of Mike O’Malley, he was either fully in the Zen or incredibly bored as he rolled a gentle thunder from the drum, and Silberman and Mislock looked to each other and deeply nodded cues for the simultaneous opening chords of the “Prologue” of Hospice.
The album would be transformed over the course of the show’s first hour. Gone were the frenetic climaxes of songs like “Sylvia” and “Two”, replaced by a cool shadow of the album that centered on Silberman’s incredible instrument, his soulful falsetto soaring beyond the stained glass and into the heavens as it always had. His full voice was also given more room to shine now that the band’s overall bombast no longer strained it to its limits. It had finally escaped the shroud of instrumentation; something the band’s previous iteration only allowed for brief and vulnerable moments was now its focus.
This sparseness also highlighted Silberman’s excellent lyricism, which, in Hospice especially, delivers a novelistic nightmare of dream imagery conflating the metaphorical death of love with an actual withering death by cancer. Beyond that central story, there’s “Bear”, easily in the all-time Top Five songs about abortion, which still serves as a concise and direct centerpiece to an otherwise hallucinogenic ride. Part of me wanted to sing along, and I’m sure I wasn’t alone; it’s always been a clever trick to make this most thematically perilous song into the closest the album comes to a single. But we the parishioners of the First Unitarian were silent, in awe of the spell of the sublime and the brutality of the mundane.
As enjoyably traumatizing as it was to revisit their breakthrough album in full, the second half of their show (after a brief intermission for the band to “collect [their] thoughts”) was more eye-opening. As they played through drastically reduced versions of career-spanning songs off their other releases, including an ode to the noise of New York in Silberman’s solo piece, “New York”, it became clearer what a future for The Antlers might look like: smoothly approachable songs with more of a focus on Silberman’s haunting lyrics than on the cocoon of sound and reverb that fogs the words on their album cuts.
Having said few things other than “Thank you” after songs and never once mentioning the physical condition to so dramatically changed his signature act, Silberman allowed himself a speaking-moment to thank us for taking a chance on this experimental new chapter in life of The Antlers. ‘We’ve been gone for a few years, but we’re back,’ he said with as much trepidation as optimism. The cobwebs were being shaken off; the years of suffering were being worked through and turned into momentum toward some kind of a future.
The Antlers were alive. The question of how successful this new iteration of the band will be could wait for another day. We had been hypnotized and transfixed by the present moment, a moment that was not at all guaranteed, and the universe was better for it.
–David C. Casey