Frankly, the review process for Winter Haunts has been tough, and at times even exhausting. I’ve mused, edited, questioned and re-written almost every word more times than I care to remember, even by my own perfectionistic standards. This is not because I couldn’t think of an appropriately slick opening gambit to crudely describe The Rational Academy’s sound, or because I was having trouble locating the correct cover art for the final format, but because I was trying to understand a complex, personal narrative without proper context of the band, their influences and most importantly, their history. I was so eager to start writing about the beauty of the music that I could feel myself missing the point, not just as a critic, but as an enthusiast. I was starting a book with only a few chapters left. I needed to know the experiences that have shaped this record, and so I packed my laptop up and embarked on a journey of discovery.
What I found, at least on the surface, was nothing new — young songwriter, Benjamin Thompson, takes his guitar and moves from his hometown of Toowoomba to the ‘big city’ of Brisbane, wide-eyed with dreams of making it as a musician. Of course, for every fairy-tale beginning comes the inevitable struggle, something Thompson has had his fair share of since those first few months spent schmoozing under the bright lights of the Metropolis. In that time, The Rational Academy has seen eight lineup changes in as many years, so it’s a small miracle that Thompson has remained so unwavering in his pursuit to make music. Winter Haunts, with it’s cathartic finality and piercing vision, is in some ways the happy ending his story deserves; an album built on experience, positive and negative, brick by brick.
And it’s with these moments that Thompson forms the bedrock of the record, both lyrically and musically. Two particularly prevalent themes drift in and out like the Brisbane tide — environment and pain. The iconic repetition of bruising, physically and mentally, is no accident, nor are the delicate descriptions of his new (and old) surroundings. We are told stories of confusion, personal identity and ultimately love, but it never feels particularly sad; there is something inescapably hopeful about Winter Haunts that stays with you long after the final note has faded. It’s in the music.
Much like the cultural melting-pot of Brisbane, the sonic composition is decidedly varied — a mish-mash of noise rock, indie-pop and shoegaze, with influences ranging from Sonic Youth to Boris worn unashamedly on The Rational Academy’s sleeve. Dense walls of sound trap you between droning guitars and synths, before beautiful melodies burst through to release you — the pull of the city and the memories of the town. There is a constant struggle between aggression and tranquility, each always on the cusp of taking over at any moment, which creates a quite magical contrast. It’s hauntingly fitting, then, that the two finally learn to live together on the wonderful closer ‘I Catch The Warmth’ — where the bittersweet, heartfelt melody somehow dances in harmony with a dissonant tonal offset and droning, muddy noise. Perhaps this is Thompson finally marrying his past and present.
In some ways, I think that’s a feeling that is relatable to everyone in some way. We’ve all had to tread daunting new territory, and we’ve all felt emotional pain. The power of Winter Haunts comes with its fearlessness. It is the culmination of chasing, and finally achieving, life-long ambitions. You can physically hear it.
Winter Haunts probably won’t get the recognition it deserves, but if it is to be their last album, at least The Rational Academy have finally created something that feels complete, building upon the sturdy foundations of A Heart Against Your Own and Swans. Richly textured, dazzlingly varied and heart-achingly beautiful, Winter Haunts, at least from my humble vantage point on the other side of the world, sounds like the album that Thompson always wanted to make, ever since the day he moved to the bright lights of Brisbane all those years ago.
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