The Antlers and opening act Little Scream each filled the large upstairs "sanctuary" area of Philadelphia's First Unitarian Church with climbing, skyward-driven sounds Wednesday.
Under the high ceiling of the edifice (dating from 1796), which vaults majestically over the church space (complete with pews for seating), an adjective such as soaring seems practically mandatory if at all applicable to music played therein. The set from the Antlers, showcasing their second album, Burst Apart, amply justified such description. The Brooklyn band's floating mix of ascending/descending guitar arpeggios, spacey washes of Darby Cicci's keyboards, and front man Peter Silberman's earnest falsetto often achieved a reaching-for-the heavens effect.
Anchored by Michael Lerner's drumming, the group used a familiar, slow-building approach, eventually making full use of loud/soft dynamics. Initially hushed songs metamorphosed into gripping, intensely executed exercises in rock catharsis. The haunting "Kettering" was one example, a suitably brooding number off Hospice, the Antlers' debut album (essentially a solo Silberman song cycle concerning a terminally ill patient's drawn-out death).
Now a full band, the Antlers still deal on their new album with dark themes, albeit more generalized. "Putting the Dog to Sleep," which closed out their regular set at the church (and concludes Burst Apart), makes clever use of mournful metaphor over a lilting, classic pop-song beat.
What initially seems like it might be the best pet-death lament since Terry Jacks' revered 1974 B-side "Put the Bone In" - and with a truly heartrending song subject that might even have made some old-school "emo" seem less whiny - is instead a study in relationship dialogue. "My trust in you," intoned Silberman, "Is a dog with a broken leg/ Tendons too torn to beg/ For you, to let me back in." In the persona of the other partner, he then sang back, "Trust me to take you home/ To clean up that blood/ All over your paws."