The Soil & the Sun. Photo by Rotten Photography.

Given the expansive, spacious, and precise sound that Michigan's The Soil & the Sun achieves on Meridian - the band's third record - two things leap out from its history: that what's now a seven-piece ensemble started as a duo, and that its first two albums were home-recorded by people who didn't really know what they were doing.

Meridian - released in August - marks the first time the group worked with a producer, and the most obvious difference from its predecessors is in its choir-like group vocals, particularly on "How Long." The band has retained its orchestral breadth and adventurousness, but with its soaring collective singing the album becomes something more celestial; songs dominated by gloomy clouds have given way to bright stars.

Working in a proper studio "was a little bit overwhelming, actually," said frontman, primary songwriter, and co-founder Alex McGrath in a recent phone interview, promoting The Soil & the Sun's December 4 performance at Rozz-Tox. "We had the whole world opened up to us, really for the first time. We had to exercise some restraint and not get too caught up in effects ... ."

He added that the first two albums were constrained by a steep learning curve: "None of us really know that much about recording. Kind of trial and error, just kind of winging it. It was a lot longer of a process to try and find something that worked doing recording at home."

It must be said, however, that 2011's Wake Up, Child and 2012's What Wonder Is This Universe! show no signs of reach exceeding grasp; they're both accomplished and ambitious recordings, and it's only through the lens of Meridian that one can see how inexperience limited the band. (The group started roughly five years ago with McGrath and drummer Ben Baker-Jackson, but, McGrath said, "there was only so much two people and a loop pedal could accomplish.")

Those first two albums had an indie-rock vibe, while Meridian is a strangely comfortable melding of gentle folk and boundless space rock - a lightness achieved through rich, omnivorous arrangements summarized in a breathy vocalization on "Are You?": "Are you undefined?"

It's telling that the new record's tracks, while distinct, melt into each other, and the album has six songs ranging from six minutes to 10 - as the album was intended to be consumed as a whole rather than as individual songs. The first single, the muscular "Samyaza," is more than seven minutes long, which gives a sense that this is not a band suited to impatience or short attention spans. (It's also the song that most clearly points back to those first albums. McGrath called it "a little more accessible. ... What our band does is all captured in that song.")

"Dynamics is an important part of that equation," McGrath said of making Meridian a single cohesive statement. "Letting the sequence breathe at the right moments, and making sure it's not too top-heavy or too back-heavy. Also, that's kind of what we were trying to do with tying the songs together as much as possible, making it feel like it flowed from one song to the next as seamlessly as possible."

The band plans to return to the studio early next year, and McGrath said he's shooting for a 2015 release. "This one's going to be a little less structured," he promised, which prompted me to ask how that was possible given the already intimidating range of Meridian, and the long leash The Soil & the Sun has already given itself.

"The Meridian songs, some of them had a pretty clear vision before going into the recording process," he explained. "These newer ones are going to be more open-ended. We'll have to see what happens."

The Soil & the Sun will perform on Thursday, December 4, at Rozz-Tox (2108 Third Avenue, Rock Island; Tickets to the 8 p.m. all-ages show are $8.

For more information on The Soil & the Sun, visit

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