By 1998, the Swordsmen still hadn’t released many of their own records, and the ones they had released were a scattered mash of eclectic vibes and ideas. The majority of their output had been focused on a collection of rather fantastic remixes that seemed to reflect a predisposition to noodly house and four-to-the-floor dance versions. No complaints here. The flurry of records they put out on Weatherall’s own Emissions label (the 3rd, 5th, and 10th Missions) all proved to be closely related, though, with some of the pairs best and weirdest creations, even to this day. They had kept people on their toes to say the least, so when “Stay Down” dropped on Warp, as a single LP, following the triple LP of “Return To The Flightpath Estate”, it’s safe to say that not many quite knew what to expect.
I can remember buying this album on a warm fall day, inspecting the odd cover, and letting the mysteriousness of the action sink into me — a deep sea diver welding in some off-world underwater colony. Whether that’s where they pulled the image didn’t matter, I was instantly ready to take the swan dive into that body of water, and figure out what the Swordsmen had in store for me.
Even the titles illustrated the bizarre bubbly cover, like “Hope We Never Surface”, “Spinebubbles”, and “Light The Last Flare”. The former (and opening) track starts off with a strange scream, and a mood reminiscent of their previous releases, focusing on the eerie and ghostly synth melodies that sound broken enough to disconnect you, but not closed off enough to distract you. The track was very brief as well, not exactly something you’d expect from Weatherall who was well known to hardly ever have a single production under the six minute mark. The fact that it was an album from Weatherall, with 12 tracks crammed onto a single disc, was an alien-enough idea. This opening song was very cool, though, like a light flickering off and on, powering up for the rest of the album to follow.
What immediately became apparent as I listened to it was a change in production. Whereas their previous releases had been more remote and simple, there was an intricacy to the sound this time; rather than a single idea repeated, these were dense songs with lots of ideas filling up a tiny space. The fact “Stay Down” is such a relaxing experience shows off the Swordsmen’s talents in taking disparate ideas and making them flow.
“The Big Clapper” somehow even sounds like it was produced underwater, with its bubbling synth line and echoing clashes whistling in the background. It’s quite the original and bizarre song, and has been on one of my many playlists circulating for the past 22 years. “No Red Stopping” ends side 1, and is the only evidence that this is indeed Weatherall and Tenniswood, being the only remotely dance-y song on this collection. It resembles several of the tracks on “Swimming Not Skimming”, and even approaches some of the trademarks that made their Lino Squares record so great, with twangy electro bass and hard snare patterns.
Side 2 keeps the energy up, and contains warnings of the full-on electro they would soon encompass on the bulk of their releases for the next seven years. “Alpha School”, the highlight of the album, shows up right before the end, tugging at our heartstrings with one of the sweetest melodies ever in electronic music before quickly fading away before us. There’s whirring and clicking sounds swirling, like a generator trying to stay awake, but it doesn’t break up the beauty of the melodic party floating in the foreground. Before you know it, the generator runs out of gas, and the track slowly sputters to a halt. A really beautiful moment in a career full of astounding feats by two masters of their craft.
“As Worldly Pleasures Wave Goodbye” ends the album, and what a gorgeous way to do so. Like several of the songs before it, the track encompasses a very melancholy feeling with the inviting melodies, but always keeping us a bit distant with the constant reminder of machines, banging and popping between the warm spaces. Surfacing from “Stay Down” feels both heavy and refreshing all at once.
I must admit to not loving “Stay Down” when I first heard it in 1998. As a deeply entrenched Weatherall fan, I didn’t quite get it. I still liked it, but I knew from history that he was always a step ahead of everyone else, and one day, it would wash over me like that water surrounding the diver on the cover. Over the years, “Stay Down” has deeply grown on me, and in 2020, I’ve been able to recognize it for the brilliance it is. A lot of people have it way up on the list in terms of their favorite Weatherall release, and rightfully so. Listening to the record now as I rip it into a digital format chokes me up knowing that Weatherall will never be here again to change his tune and surprise us. Perhaps that’s part of the reason why this album means so much to me all of a sudden. The thought of this record still growing on me after more listens is a pretty great thought, and after 22 years, I can’t think of a greater gift Weatherall could give.