If you’re into one-man bands, shoe gaze, and ambient doom, then Robert Heath is your guy. From Glasgow, Scotland, A Sea of Dead Trees is Heath’s solo project that started back in 2017. Athenia is his second release. The album is thematically based around the sinking of the Athenia, a British passenger liner sunk in World War II. The album is dedicated to his a grandfather, a survivor of the event. It is an instrumental album that uses layers of guitars, samples of people talking, and steady sampled drums to keep a steady pace to the hypnotic atmospherics. Elements of shoe gaze help to throw you into the deep end, which for the most part is a very eerie place.
“A Straw House in a Field of Flames” introduces us to this slow daze of shoe gaze. In what is probably the lightest song of the album, Heath uses acoustic guitar as the foundation for the vibes for this track. A few vocal lines are thrown in for atmosphere by Michael Wiseman, and they help give the feel of the song a little more depth. It is a cyclical piece that never really changes its progression, but still Heath works at bringing in and taking out certain instruments to help maintain good dynamics through the song.
There are some heavy guitars that come in near the end. They are really distorted but tucked away nicely in the mix. This is the doom aspect that is called upon throughout the album, used to push the intensity of certain parts without stepping on the delicate atmosphere of the song. The next song, “Black Philip,” uses more of the distorted guitars to create a heavier trip. Tucked underneath some thin guitar leads, the distortion pushes this slow and heavy wall across the sound. This track, along with most others on the album, sounds like it could be used in a really dramatic and intense scene in a movie.
The title track follows and is the most intense song on the album. Fourteen-minute “Athenia” tells the story of the sinking of the British passenger liner of the same name. The same riff sinks itself into the depths of your psyche and begs your imagination to step forward with visuals of the story. Samples of survivors recount their experiences of the night the ship went down, and the music tends to rise and fall around these parts. The heaviest breakdown cracks in around the nine-minute mark; by this point, you might quite possibly be engulfed in the progression of the song and the story, which rise hand-in-hand. This piece is the staple of this album and includes all the elements that make up the mood of this project.
“An Exorcism for the Damned” wraps up the album a few tracks later with a full circle effort that calls back the acoustic guitar element that opened up the ride. At this point you are very familiar with the ambient techniques used throughout the album. It may get derivative at times, but the set up and mood allows for it. This conceptual album definitely has its character and formula, which makes it cohesive in its redundancy. Heath does a fantastic job of setting a mood with these songs, especially considering the subject matter at hand. The grand vision needed by one person to create all this on their own needs to be dialled in for a solid execution, and that’s exactly what this album is about.
Written by Ben Cornel
*edited by Kate Erickson