On Signs Following’s Bandcamp page, there are three tags for the newest EP: experimental, post-rock, and Chattanooga. While these are all true, Josh Mays, the singer, guitarist, writer, recorder, and producer of the EP, missed one key descriptor that I find encompassing and necessary: hauntingly beautiful.
I’m sitting in a quiet house writing this at eight in the morning, and even though nothing is playing anymore through my Apple earbuds, Mays’ voice and his unique instrumentals are still echoing around the house and my brainspace. It sounds inane or brown-nosing to say I never expected to hear a piece of art from someone I know, and even typing the words hauntingly beautiful makes me feel a bit nauseous. As in, did Mays really do something as good as I think he did, or am I somehow beyond biased? The latter is possible, as I am good friends with Josh, and have sang in the highly acclaimed cult band, Quiet Hour with Josh and a few of his roommates/close friends. However, I don’t think that’s what this is. I think this is a damn good EP, worthy of your attention.
I texted Josh several days ago to let him know that I was hoping to write a review of this first Signs Following EP, wishing him the best of luck in his final days mixing the tracks and getting everything put together. At the time, I was somewhat worried about writing this review. As in, if I don’t like this piece, then I’ll A.) feel bad for writing an honest critique of a friend’s hard work, B.) say I just can’t really write the piece right now, but I like the album, and wish him the best of luck, or C.) forfeit any journalistic integrity I have in order to kiss up. While one of these three scenarios might have to play out when I listen to another friend’s first album, neither will this time around.
The album as a whole has a sound that’s perfectly suited to a quieter time of day, esp. when the sun is lower in the sky, and your surroundings are quiet. No matter how big Signs Following gets, this isn’t the sort of album that should be played aloud in a coffee shop, no matter how third wave the clientele and employees of this shop are. While there are some sections with faster, louder guitars and drums, some with Mays’ voice reaching an emotional peak, it’s a calming experience. I don’t want that to be misinterpreted, as the album is not purely meditative.
The Space Between Words is calming, but somehow also other. The closest parallel I have to this is in the film world with directors like Aronofsky and Lynch. Their works like Mother, Requiem for a Dream, Twin Peaks, and Eraserhead are all beautifully serene in some ways (cue the incredibly 90’s Twin Peaks theme) but also deeply supernatural and/or creepy in a minor key sort of way. I don’t want to say the EP is disturbing, as that makes this sound like a horror album, which it is not in any way, but that’s about the best adjective I can use. Maybe creepy works better. A good creepy, one you want to come back to, to experience over and over again.
I miss the moment between when you shut the car off / Broke the silence / And when you turned to leave
The very first song of the album, “Always Look at the Tops of the Trees (pt. 1 & 2)” is a doozy, opening up with the guitars that Mays will come to be known for, if there is any semblance of justice left in this broken universe. Mays’ soft, trance-inducing, quasi-whisper voice comes in after a minute, and he sings in an Ecclesiastesical manner, saying “We will both disappear and dissipate” over and over again. It’s a somber lyric to start an EP with, and it starts the exploration that the whole piece seems to be undertaking: what is permanent, and what is not?
Throughout all of the songs, there is repetition, both lyrically and musically. It should be noted that Mays’ use of repetition is not annoying, immature or used to fill up space. These repeating phrases and notes create space within the listener for the emotional impact of the words and chords to manifest themselves, and give a depth that is not often found in music.
On our backs in the snow bank / With our feet in the air / I told you I could die here
The second song on the EP is an instrumental, labeled “Pt. 3,” finishing up the beautiful story we began in track 1 with a fantastic violin. The track serves to reset the listener, to tell them there’s more, and sort of center them for the rest of the 17 and a half minute EP.
Numb and matted down / Stale breath and crooked thought / I feel finite / Within the wrinkles / Of these sheets
“Seafoam” is the track that makes the album, the perfect center track, something that ties together the beginning threads and the end ones, showcases Mays’ chilling voice, and demonstrates his masterful instrumentation and lyrical genius. It starts out with Mays whispering over a guitar, words the listener can’t quite hear, but somehow understands implicitly.
There’s a point in “Seafoam” that’s stunning. A sonnetian turn, where everything comes to a head and sends paroxysms of pain, sadness, and generalized feelings through the listener. Especially in the context of the whole EP, Seafoam is a diamond and a beautiful centerpiece, something to wrap up what’s been, and to foreshadow what is soon to come.
I hope this song outlives me / But I doubt it will
“Other People’s Houses” is as angsty as Mays wants to get in this EP, something that I hope he can lean into more in future projects, as he does it so well. There are several moments throughout the album (and this song in particular) where the guitar will drastically shift to lower notes than are expected, and it’s gut-wrenching. There’s a reason I’m not a musician, but I don’t think most artists would think of doing this. It is unexpected, but at the same time is the perfect note to shift to in the song.
If everything changes, if nothing’s the same / Breathing and growing we will remain
This might sound like I’m insulting the song, but the beginning of “Washington Architecture” is something I could hear over the closing credits of so many 90’s movies. It’s sort of victorious, culminating. And then— Mays shifts. There’s a simple, repeating guitar. That’s it for a while, but then he begins to sing, his voice following the same notes as the guitar. And then there’s a second shift, and Mays comes in a second before expected, and two other voices join him in a supernatural harmony. I am proud to say these two voices belong to Shea McCollough and Christopher Roberts, two of my very good friends. If there is any bias in this piece, it’s here, with three of my best friends all singing and playing.
We will survive / In different places / The silence between / Is painless
“The Houses We’ve Lived In” is the closing track, and you know it is the finale the first time you listen to it. There’s a fatalistic sound to the guitar and cymbals. This is the completion of the piece, and the determination that, no matter what happens, some things will last, some things, some people, and some relationships will remain. A beautiful completion to a beautiful album.
When it remakes us / We remain
Signs Following’s first EP, The Space Between Words, is a haunting exploration of purpose and permanence, something that Josh Mays and the city of Chattanooga should be proud of. I look forward to more music from Signs Following, and recommend you support Mays and his creative work in any way that you can. The EP is available on Bandcamp here, and Signs Following is on Facebook here.