Cloud Caverns – A Banner Year
Cloud Caverns’ forthcoming album feels aptly-titled. It has indeed been a banner year of sorts—flags of all sorts have been in the news, everyone eager to make their identities and causes known via proxy of illustrated fabric.
But perhaps the flag that truly sums up the year for most of is the white flag.
Indeed, Cloud Caverns’ Brandon Peterson has not been without hardship—the joys of fatherhood eclipsed with the sorrows of faulty (and costly) home construction, the slow decline of Alzheimer’s, the visceral ache of suicide. Pair that with the other “events” of the year.
Pain after pain has been a creative catalyst for Peterson—a few singles quickly formed into a larger body of work. A Banner Year is the classic album experience, meant to be heard front-to-back. The entire record was recorded without a single amp; it leverages budget microphones and late nights as its creative base. In some ways, it’s as much of a solo record as Collective Memory. Yet even in light of this simplicity, it’s the most layered and cinematic Cloud Caverns album to date.
Peterson labels his music as progressive folk. This description is accurate to some degree, but perhaps less so this time around. Synthesizers, piano, strings, effects, and vocal layers certainly cement the “progressive” part of this label.
But folk might be a misnomer. No, there are no ukuleles or tumbleweeds here. This is unbridled, narrative indie rock. And per usual, the narrative cuts deep. Much like Collective Memory, there are some hauntingly-painful sentiments here. The white flag flies quietly over all types of lamentation.
Even so, joy peeks through now and then. “Odd Thing” and “The Quickening” are triumphant and curious. They’re a nice break from tongue-and-cheek critique of our political and social climate. And while I may not agree with every piece of commentary here, Peterson’s view is centrist enough that his sentiments are approachable even if not always palatable; he addresses legitimate concerns of idolization of politicians, the divisions of party lines, and the complete chaos of the government—and these are things that are fairly inoffensive.
Of course, not everyone cares about lyrics—and in lieu of this, there’s still a lot to enjoy here. In fact, the album’s tone has a fair bit more levity than the last few records when it comes to instrumentation. Sure, there are bits of grit and gloom—but the addition of synthesizers on tracks like “The Eleventh Hour Effort,” “The American Man,” and “Pleasant Hill” easily bury the bitter sentiments on a casual listen. The latter of the three is adorned by a beautiful crescendo end that makes it one of the most powerful Cloud Caverns songs ever released.
The single exception is the final track, “Together.” It’s graced by a somber mood, akin to Holy Gloom. Oddly, it’s a reversal of the previous tracks—the dark veneer is paired with hints of hope. The track devolves into a phantom choir that continues to grow in number, ending on a powerful harmony. And in this moment, the white flag becomes the very tool that props Peterson up. He’s tired and worn out, but he has not been overcome just yet.
A Banner Year is not the happiest album. Ignorance is bliss, and this is far from an ignorant work of art. It knows pain. It was forged in fire. Peterson at times laughs off the absurdity of life; elsewhere, he calls out corruption more directly. It never feels pretentious. This is the story of one man trying to navigate life’s challenging circumstances, passing one obstacle only to find a larger one around the corner.
Musically, it’s a pretty sizable progressive. Rivers Old and Lost was definitely a change of pace, and it felt perhaps a bit too divergent. A Banner Year definitely holds its own, feeling neither too similar nor dissimilar to the rest of Cloud Caverns’ catalog. It’s riskier and more expansive, but it’s arguably more consistent than the sonic trail mix of Holy Gloom. It’s fuller than the barren Collective Memory. And it simply has some of the most powerful Cloud Caverns tracks to date.
In spite of this being mostly a solo endeavor, Peterson did have a bit of support bringing the album to life. David Lipps handled mastering, helping bring out the nuances of the tracks. AJ Estrada once again has provided stunning artwork. Dan Bouza, Justin Peterson, Jon Streker, and AJ Estrada collaborated to bring a few of the songs to life.
Even so, A Banner Year remains a grassroots effort—one drenched in blood, sweat, and literal tears. Its sincerity is impossible to hide; its sentiment beg to be heard, if not understood. Peterson has raised the bar on his work in the most unexpected seasons, resulting in an album rife with the scent of human condition.
A Banner Year will be available on a-banner-year.net and Cloud Caverns’ Bandcamp page on 11/13. All proceeds will be donated to proceeds will be donated to the Fisher Center for Alzheimer’s Research Center (https://www.alzinfo.org/).