Madeline Johnston, who records as Midwife, has come up with a great name for her genre of music: “heaven metal.” Her second album, Forever, has the noise of metal with songs built around heavy guitar, but it trades in that genre’s usual aggressiveness for calming repetition. The result is a gloomy, immersive atmosphere that is reminiscent of some of Emma Ruth Rundle’s work, though this music is less focused on hooks. Instead, Johnston makes these songs into formless voids that are dark, emotive, and also weirdly peaceful. It’s relaxing to let everything go and let this album’s sound wash over you.
Johnston muffles her voice in the guitar, almost sounding like she’s patching into the songs from a radio. The lyrics are simple and repetitive, matching the droning guitar parts, and they’re focused on loss after a friend of hers, Colin Ward (who is heard reading a poem on the album’s fifth track track, “C.F.R.W.”), passed away. That lends the songs an underlying purpose and feeling that helps keep it engaging, unlike some other drone albums that can be difficult to connect with if it just feels like the artist is experimenting with sounds for the sake of it.
Forever only has six songs, but each are their own distinct, haunting reflections on grief. Opener “2018” captures the initial shock and anger, with its only lyrics being “this is really happening to me” and “get the fuck away from me, 2018.” The closest the album has to a single is “Anyone Can Play Guitar,” which has a gentle melody that blends in with Johnston’s reverbed guitar. “Vow” and “Language” bring the volume down to nearly a whisper, using space and spare droning notes to create a feeling of vast emptiness. Ward’s poem jars the listener out of that lull at the start of “C.F.R.W.” which is followed by four minutes of reflective ambient sound that lets his death settle in. That transitions into the closer, “S.W.I.M.,” which returns to the heaven metal sound with the loud guitars and shoegaze-inspired riffs. Johnston sings her most straight-forward, heartbreaking lyrics on that song, conveying her struggle to move on: “I don’t want to swim forever, treading water my whole life.”
It is grim material, and Johnston portrays it unflinchingly, using both her words and the sound to convey her grief directly while also retaining ambiguity that will allow listeners to connect with these songs in their own way. As heavy as the subject matter and sound is at times, there is an undercurrent of resolve and strength in her noisy guitar parts, which help the album avoid feeling like it’s just hitting you over the head with sadness. Forever gives the listener a lot more than that; it’s a nuanced, heartfelt recording that belongs to its own genre and does justice to her friend’s memory.