Thought Trials – This Has Always Been With You

Can beauty come from pain? Is suffering a refining fire of sorts, maybe even itself a wellspring of creativity in some sense? Many of the creatives I talk with have seen their fair share of difficulties, and art is often a byproduct of wrestling through life’s challenges in solitude.

Josh Martin, the mastermind behind Thought Trials, certainly has had a challenging few years, catalyzed by the discovery of an inoperable brain tumor. It’d be remiss to simply say everything changed over night or that relationships and passions were all reframed in light of Martin’s own mortality. In earlier eras, they had the concept of momento mori – but for a vast majority of Americans, death feels like fiction – something “out there” or “for later.”

There are a number of ways someone might respond to this type of news; suffice to say, Martin’s discography has grown exponentially since that date, many of the songs (and related photographs as well) all tied to treatment. On his newest album, This Has Always Been With You, the songs were birthed from existential crises, hospital stays, and hallucinations from seizures. None of these are pleasant to say the least, and even something like the sterile, lifeless walls of a hospital room can feel cold and distant.

You might then suppose that Martin’s music would be sober, dark, and foreboding. But none of this is fully accurate. The record opens with calming vibraphone, field recordings of what sounds like people talking and doors creaking, and a gentle swell of strings. By the two-minute mark, you’ve got the sort of lead that would have worked in any classic JRPG soundtrack. It’s a calming, mysterious vibe that feels earthy. The textures don’t really feel traditionally American, even, and the mental images I had while listening were somewhere within tall pines and verdant wilds. It’s not particularly cold, icy, or slow, and in some ways “Palinopsia” might not even conventionally considered post-rock (save, perhaps, for the Kraken Quartet’s mallet-percussion flavor). But whatever you call it, you’ll like find your mind is a bit lighter after the track closes.

“Oglio” takes the more conventional route, opening with melodic guitar and a simple-yet-present bassline. Again, I immediately think of the Kraken Quartet, especially the collaboration with Adobo, once the vibraphone kicks in, but that’s not to say things are simply derivative. The later half of the track focuses more precisely on the traditional core of rock instrumentation, along with some synth effects tossed in. Even though there are several looping layers, Martin somehow manages to give them all time as “lead” depending on what is added or subtracted. Add in some nice tremolo picking and punchy chords and the end of the track almost has a touch of an industrial quality.

It’s pretty difficult to place this album in some ways. Bass parts aren’t crazy, but there are definitely times where they’re in the spotlight. I can’t help but think of Elephant Gym in this context. Guitar is usually there in some fashion, but it’s not what demands attention at all times. This is particularly interesting since Martin is primarily known for his guitar chops (with him even being in the “band” version of Gatto Black). On “Glioma,” even the drums feels like the lead instrument during the intro and center of the song. This is again one of Martin’s strengths on the album – to make repeating parts feel different with more (or less, in some cases) context. The drum part doesn’t change when guitar kicks in, but now it’s part of something bigger. You can eat an egg alone, but you could also put the egg into cake mix. One of these is necessarily going to taste eggier. Martin’s composition style is quite simply transformative.

“Scanning” is a one-minute interlude track that seamlessly bridges the two halves of the record. I almost always have mixed feelings on interludes as opposed to simply having a longer intro or outro to another track, an in the case of it literally being seamless, the point seems even stranger to me in some ways. But the track is exactly one minute long, followed then by “Years” and “Decades,” and the increasing expanse of time is not lost on me. Even a single minute can be significant in the larger scope of things, even if it’s easier to look back on extended periods. And in likewise fashion, “Years” takes the initial bed of “Scanning” and layers it with lush instrumentation across its runtime.

“Decades” is late-album highlight that reminds me of Hammock circa 2010 or so, and it’s definitely “twinkly”. The drums in the middle are run through a filter so that the crashing cymbals feels particularly chaotic, all before this lifts to a powerful trumpet line. The sound isn’t particularly “emo”, but the ethos is. It’s just the sort of aesthetic that happens to accompany these types of arrangements.

Martin clearly knows how to writing a closing track. Looking at just the length of “Senescence,” a track capped at precisely seven minutes, it takes the crown for the longest. Any storied post rock fan can take guesses at what sort of dynamics the track will have or assume a giant crescendo ending, and they’d be correct. Martin again takes his skill at recontextualizing individual instruments and keeps a primary guitar motif running through each individual section. Again, there’s something JRPG-esque here, especially when it comes to some of the tones and ways arpeggios are used. The bass really drops around the five-minute mark, with minute six feeling very akin to A Hope For Home’s In Abstraction and letting off the musical gas pedal for a more subdued close. Note there still very much is a big build, but there’s more time to wind down after that as well.

Admittedly, I don’t listen to a lot of instrumental music. Maybe it’s because I think in words and definitions and need that level of concrete anchor, but I’ve never wanted to simply let music just be a background thing. That said, it’s a bit more challenging for me to assess the entire dynamic development of the album, let alone even the progression of one individual song. There is, however, some clear meta-motion at play with the track titles (“Palinopsia” referring to a lingering visual image; “Oglio,” “Dendro,” and “Glioma” together forming succinctly “Ogliodendroglioma,” the specific type of tumor whose early symptoms tend to be seizures; “Senescence” speaks to the eventually failure of cells to divide) which follow the initial signs of the cancer, the presence of the tumor, the passage of time, and violent cellular failure. Instrumentally, we’re not looking at an album like Everywhere at the End of Time, where the progression of dementia is laid out through progressively-disorienting and abstract arrangements. It doesn’t feel like each song is a developing cancer (thankfully). But there is certain tension, mystique, and intrigue at play. Just like the familiar instrumental lines somehow feels amorphous in lieu of new circumstances, surely life must follow suit under the dark shadow of a horrible illness. The same core feeling might present itself as hope, fear, curiosity, dread, or loneliness. And that is perhaps where this being an instrumental album does pay off – there are certain things about illness, especially chronic and terminal illness, that are just incredibly difficult to communicate, even if you are experiencing them yourself. And why would you be able to communicate this well? Most people aren’t going to seminars to get vocabulary for their suffering.

Perhaps it’s the album’s title which is particularly heartbreaking – the sense that the illness is not simply a new thing but a thing which is so intertwined with the very being of a person. The fear of looking forward; the past haunted in a way you never even knew. That’s a lot to process. Thankfully, this album seems to approach all of this masterfully. Production is spot-on. There’s plenty of variety to behold, and, for songs birthed from cancer treatment, there’s still something calm and soothing under all of it. Is it fair to say that this album is proof Martin’s life is any easier? No. But it’s certainly proof he hasn’t given up at life or music, and I’m certainly thankful he’s still at it.

You can order the album and exclusive bundles here – including a version of the CD with a one-of-a-kind photo.

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