October 21, 2015 2:08 pm
Warbler, an Oakland-based finger-picking acid folk protest rock outfit, freely spelunks the conventional chasms between the sacred and the secular, the prophetic and the political, the abstract and the concrete. Often too earnest for the cynics and too skeptical for the faithful, Warbler resonates with the growing number of people who tend to fall between battle lines—for those who seek truth over belonging and discovery over familiarity. Perhaps it's just what you've been looking for.
Warbler interview with Outside the Music Box
Sea of Glass review at We Are Mirrors
Warbler interview at We Are Mirrors
The Deli SF
a blurp from The Bay Bridged
from the Examiner
Eagle Rising mention
Last Resistance shout out
Sea of Glass Kickstarter
A review of Sea of Glass:
Sean Sullivan has been serenading the California coast for more than ten years now as the creative force behind several unorthodox neo-folk outfits out of Monterey and Oakland. Warbler, Sullivan’s latest and most enduring experiment, recalls the psychedelic experimentation of Skip Spence and the haunting fireside verse of Phosphorescent and O’Death, playfully combining a keen grasp of disparate genres with explosive sociopolitical commentary to create some rare protest music for the culturally disenfranchised.
Set to a brave blend of electro-folk instrumentation—beat-driven fingerpicking playfully layered with synth, slide, brass, close harmony, reverb and a panoply of effects—Sea of Glass, Warbler’s 2015 release, often sounds like an apocalyptic indictment of everything American. Amid Sullivan’s dreamy warbles, a self-described postmodern anti-folksinger inveighs against the aggression and avarice of U.S. foreign policy (“Be the Beast”) and the increasing autocracy and immunity the nation’s corporatist police state enjoys at our expense (“Iron Scarecrow,” “The Politician,” “Koolaid”). Critically, however, he subsumes these criticisms under the consumerism, resignation, self-deceit and self-congratulation that bind together and define the American masses, a group the songwriter strives to disown but among whom he cannot help but find himself: “We are the hungry, we swallow it whole, slaves to the lender for paper tender.”
With each macabre indictment of an external body (“corporatists, they pucker lips ‘round Machiavelli’s bullhorn”; “imposter father fixes strings, hogties our hands and feet; his brothers lick their fingers, take pay for tinkering”), Sullivan’s anti-folk persona also pillories himself and the people fighting these very same enemies. “Be the Beast” makes a refrain of “I will kill for peace,” which finds the underlying culprit of the American state’s global escapades in individual expediency and fear, while “Iron Scarecrow” ends with the devastating concession: “We want a failure, a father to shame.”
At the same time, each track seems to model a step in the singer’s internal transformation. He may begin by censuring the architects of our disposable culture, but he increasingly finds meaning in the revelations of human experience and divine deliverance (“Testimony,” “Why Do I Do?” and “Tidal Effect”)—subjects he treats with a frankness akin to Sufjan Stevens.
Right in the middle of this broad journey from anger to surrender stand the three arguably strongest tracks on the record, which all share a slightly tangential relationship to this loose narrative arc. “Golden Gate,” a heartbreaking suicide ballad evocative of an autumn sunset, exploits Sullivan’s command of nightmare metaphors to narrate a single individual's struggles with doubt and mental illness while “The Idiot,” Sullivan’s inquisitive self-portrait, dives into the songwriter’s past to probe his frustrations and link them with the naïveté and idealism born amid spiritual transformation. Between these, “Inhibitor Inhibitor,” driven by a flourish of imagery and harmony, can pass as a thinly veiled invitation to the wonders of psychedelic insight while doubling as a warning against mining one’s vaults too deeply (“When you peek through keyhole eyes, you’re overwhelmed and crystalized; the salty light will shatter you, dilate and vaporize”). Together, the three songs reveal how personally the songwriter takes his plight against this planet—the cost of succumbing to deceit, the treasures we conceal from ourselves, and the value of dissent.
“Tidal Effect” closes out the record with a paean to the “painter of painters, the author of color” intoned earlier in “Why Do I Do?” Cleansed by the “light and richest fire” of God, he relinquishes his bloodlust and vengeance amid a nuanced chorus of bells and harmonics, assured that all the hardships of this life can do nothing to shake the hold God has on his soul.
Bridging the hollows that many modern troubadours often leave between their pitchfork Philippics and candle-lit soul ballads, Sea of Glass and its spirited approach to songcraft approaches true greatness—not only in the world of rock-forward folktronica, but also as a bright new voice in the wildly variegated and rapidly evolving landscape of West Coast pop.
February 2016 Atlanta, Georgia
Another review of Sea of Glass:
While it certainly contains healthy helpings of the delicious finger picking, bubbling synth, layered electric textures, and scrappy melodic renderings that distinguished Warbler’s debut, Sea of Glass represents an exponential sharpening of Warbler’s folk-informed, experimental indie rock sound. The unique aesthetic vision championed by Warbler’s “brain father” Sean Sullivan feels far more comfortable in its own shoes now, seamlessly supporting choice lyrical diamonds formed in the crucible of Sean’s life.
And it is the depth and maturity of the lyrical content that fortifies this record for multiple visitations. Every time you come back to this record, it has something new to offer—a new facet to savor that you had not previously noticed.
“Be the Beast,” the first track on the record, opens up Sea of Glass with a bang. It frames the problem: from corrupt politicians and Machiavellian bottom-liners all the way to the ugly root—a complicit populace. See, we don’t just feed the beast. We are the beast.
After the first suite of political songs fades out, Sea of Glass transitions to address cultural and social issues. “Vacuum Aspirations” concerns abortion, especially its roots in racism and eugenics. The title is drawn from a procedure sometimes used for abortion (“vacuum aspiration”), where suction first dismembers an unborn baby and his or her womb effects and then removes them from a uterus. Of course, the title also has a double meaning. Abortion creates a personal and societal vacuum—is that vacuum what we truly aspire to achieve?
This album raises the right questions, addresses pertinent issues, and introduces the political discussion to a more realistic realm: personal responsibility.
Having savagely undermined the political and social hopes that contemporary humanism has proffered to the common people, Sea of Glass ends by offering a simple trust in the unchangeable eternal sovereignty of Jesus. It’s an old hope to be couched in such experimental music. But isn’t that always the way of the truth: to be ever changing and ever the same?
A Review of Warbler’s Sea of Glass - Justin Craig-Kuhn
In the spring of 2015, a Kickstarter page announcing Warbler’s “sophomore folk-rock album” promised “a personal challenge to American politics and culture.” Three years earlier, their eponymous debut album began the quest to express a quirky brand of social protest and now they were promising a renewed commitment to that path. After a successful campaign and several months of production, their effort has produced 13 tracks totaling 57 minutes of carefully crafted music.
Sea of Glass is an album of juxtapositions and social criticisms, at times wandering into a dreamland of personal reflection. Christian references appear regularly (Jesus, the Devil, the church), coloring the work with religious undertones. Indeed, the title itself comes from scripture (Revelation 15:2). The album seems as much a criticism of modern religion from one of its followers as a criticism of society from one of its citizens. However, this is no hate album; tucked amongst the complaints are hints of reverence especially relating to the natural world and the power of individual choice.
The work begins with the lyrically powerful Be the Beast. In it, a paranoid character expresses fear and doubt about modern conflict and proclaims he would kill in order to correct wrongs, an ironic admission of the vicious cycle of violence that is endemic in human history. Later songs present specific social criticisms, particularly dealing with politics and the federal government (“There is no peace in Washington / There is death”). Other songs deal with personal reflection (“Why do I do what I hate?”) and the beauty of nature (“Skipping stones they kiss the water”). The commentary is usually clear and
blunt but at times becomes cryptic and even muddled. If there is a flaw in the lyrical content, it’s that it paints such a specifically opinionated picture that it may alienate a significant portion of a demographic who might otherwise embrace the music.
Unlike their debut album, Sea has a more somber feel occasionally bordering on melancholy. There are fewer enthusiastic moments, more minor chords. The upbeat sections feel more grungy than futuro-circus. Sea also offers a more refined sense of flow with fewer jarring transitions; there is a deeper sense of purpose and cohesion here.
Sonically, the album delivers a rich timbral fabric woven from an interesting choice of instrumentation. The essence of each track consists of a masterfully picked guitar line accompanied by Sullivan’s airy vocals. Simultaneously, we hear acoustic and electric pianos, synthesizers, electric guitars, strings, horns, and vocal harmonies set to a diverse percussive backing. InhibitorInhibitorfeaturesasectionthatresemblesa renaissance quartet accompanied by a sputtering Moog. Two tracks later, Why Do I Do? weaves a duet using synth and electric guitar soaring over a semi-industrial rhythm section. These short but intriguing sections add tasty nuances to what are already strong showings, creating music that is eminently relistenable.
As we hear these songs, we’re charmed as if by a bard sitting by a midnight campfire. Indeed, when we talk about Warbler, we’re really talking about Sean Sullivan, the creative force behind the music and a bard in his own right. Although he collaborates heavily with other instrumentalists in his live and studio work (including drummers Fred Jennings and Jeremy Shanok), it’s clear that the art we’re consuming originates from a singular mind that is complex and often frustrated. It’s a mind that assesses the modern human social construct as imperfect and misguided. Sullivan seems
confident he’s found a better way to be, and he’s not shy in sharing his criticisms. Like many social commentators before him, his music is forged as a weapon yielded against what he views as modern evils.
In an interview with ejinthemirror2, Sullivan discusses his musical influences, many of whose styles are heard on Sea. Perhaps most notable is Sufjan Stevens, whose albums regularly feature guitar picked lines with electronic accompaniment and who also offers frequent Christian references. There are nods to Stevens motifs such as fluttering flutes in Comfort in a Lie and falsetto vocal utterances over upright piano in The Politician. Though borrowing from his many influences, Sullivan defines a distinct sound whose pure comparison to any one artist or genre does an injustice to the material. In the interview, Sullivan states, “Music that speaks of the truths of scripture in a truly heart-felt and creative way is my favorite” and he certainly delivers on that sentiment from a creative perspective.
Sea of Glass presents a satisfyingly wide range of compositional approaches while maintaining a sense of coherence throughout. Unlike many modern indie rock albums, these songs sound distinct from one another, leading us on a journey that covers summits and valleys, rivers and robots. Many tracks end with sections that depart drastically, though not jarringly, from the song proper, coaxing the listening into another realm after a brief interstitial exploration. It works remarkably well to tie a group of songs into an album and conveys a sense of story, of footprints in the sand. The average listener will likely find herself humming one of the many memorable melodies presented in the work and reflecting on the meaning of the protest conveyed in the lyrics.
Does the creation of an album have the ability to affect change in modern American society? Can it resonate with a critical mass of the public to catalyze the kind of change spoken of in the Kickstarter campaign? I don’t know the answer to that, but I do know music can guide open minded listeners toward a place of reflection where they may learn to stop slurping all the Kool-Aid served to them. Sea of Glass guides us to such a place, and does so eloquently.
4 of 5 stars