There is not much that is more humbling (and slightly frightening) than receiving messages from members of bands whose albums I have reviewed, thanking me for taking time to dig into their work. Gothic americana provided opportunities to converse with the people behind the music more than any other. What an honor.
Thank you, Strawfoot and Myssouri, for reaching out.
"Jesus was the only One that ever raised the dead," The Misfit continued, "and He shouldn’t have done it. He thrown everything off balance. If He did what He said, then it’s nothing for you to do but throw away everything and follow Him, and if He didn’t, then it’s nothing for you to do but enjoy the few minutes you got left the best way you can by killing somebody or burning down his house or doing some other meanness to him. No pleasure but meanness," he said and his voice had become almost a snarl. - Flannery O’Connor, “A Good Man is Hard to Find”
O’Connor was notorious for her descriptions of the “Christ-haunted South” and all of its facade of righteousness, while, beneath it all, was the grotesqueness of sin and distorted creatures. The above quote is at the crux of all vain questioning of humanity toward God and his mysterious will. It concerns the ugly glory of Christ’s sacrifice for the enemies of God, who did nothing, in themselves, to merit God’s favor. This is also at the crux of the curiosity that is the gothic americana musical genre. A genre that finds its origins in the winter-covered landscapes of Denver, Colorado. It is a curiosity, indeed, that this Appalachian-bound, doom-and-gloom sound should come from somewhere outside of the Deep South, where hell and damnation sermons and snake-oil salesmen abound. Nothing sums up the tone and feelings of gothic americana better than the documentary, Searching for the Wrong-Eyed Jesus, which contains talents from my own exploration and others that would fit squarely within the genre itself.
I re-watched that documentary which has a surreal quality to it much like the music the viewer’s travel companion, Jim White, makes (and that gothic americana makes, broadly-speaking). He becomes our eyes so that we make look on the South in a way that is contemplative, empathetic and understanding, while, at the same time, not depleting the blatant difficulties inherent in that culture. If you have read any quality American history then there should be some awareness of the complexity of the interplay of religion and the brutal sins and self-perpetuating ghosts of the South. Jim White, himself, was a transplant to the South from southern California and he, too, recognizes that he is not a true Southerner, but he is empathetic to the complexities of that world and the messy spiritual qualities inherent in it. I am weaving my year-end gothic americana reflections through this documentary, because it defines the messy spirituality that haunts gothic americana music. It gives us eyes to see and understand.
One must understand something about gothic americana music before endeavoring to experience it. First, it is drenched in Christian allegory and imagery, so much so that, at times, it could easily turn off the most narrow-minded of atheists and agnostics, those who refuse to even see and benefit from the narrative beauty of the story of Christ and the mysteries inherent in it. Second, this is not "Christian" music. All of the artists in the genre are not appropriating the imagery in their music as evangelistic propaganda. They, instead, are endeavoring to appropriate the imagery as a medium for lyrical depth and atmosphere. David Eugene Edwards (who, also, makes an appearance in Searching for the Wrong-Eyed Jesus) seems to be the main musician in this genre that holds, devoutly, to the propositional truths of Christianity. And, finally, there is a certain element, or negative approach, that appears in this music which society, in general, shies away from: a low understanding of humanity’s anthropology. People are not viewed highly in this music. Most of the time, there are images of sin and corruption that litter the landscape of this music. With the exception of 16 Horsepower and Wovenhand (and, possibly, a couple others) , there is not much hope presented in response to the worst of humanity. Don’t expect hope in most of this music.
This is also to say that this music will not be for everybody. Matter of fact, it has the potential to really polarize opinion between people. It is not always enjoyable music without putting some time and work into enjoying it. And, like I said above, these troubadours are not out to make people feel good about their situations and their world. If you are not feeling a weight or burden after listening to most of this music, then, I would presume, you are not really listening. I find that I am often melancholy. My range of emotions is not terribly wide. My happiness is always tinged with worry, concern, burden and the presence of a dark cloud. This often displays itself in my interests as well and the people I tend to have friendships with. I tend toward a darker tint on life, faith, and relationships. It would not surprise me at all if I was found to have clinical depression if I were tested. All this to show why this music appeals to me on both a musical and internal level. I get it; it makes sense to me. The down side of that is, in the wake of this genres lack of hope, it can feed my melancholy and dark bouts in some very negative ways. It can turn me too far inward and make me feel as if being depressed and melancholy is the way things should be. It conflicts with my Christian faith; the gospel of grace tells me that things are not what they should be.
So most of this music speaks truth, but that truth burdens. There is no grace to accompany it. And that is why David Eugene Edwards should be a central figure in the scope of gothic americana music. It is hard for anyone to argue against DEE’s importance to the genre; in both origin and it being sustained. Now, this is not to say that there are not other important figures, like Jeffrey-Paul, Jay Munly, and Slim Cessna, but there is something about DEE that gives the genre its heart and impetus. At this point, other gothic americana fans will probably say that I am giving DEE central place because we are brothers in faith. We are working within the same faith framework. And I will not deny that this element plays into it, but to say it is the only reason is to not know me. And if you want to be shown the truth of that then you have to interact with me, otherwise no argument I give will convince. DEE is central to this genre. That is just the way it is.
The works of 16 Horsepower and Wovenhand (which entails twelve full albums and various live albums and individual songs) is a monolith. One cannot deal with gothic americana without dealing with the various incarnations of DEE. Not only that, but his presence is found on the works of other bands in the genre (aka “Whitewashed” on Lilium’s Short Stories and “Dar He Drone” on Jay Munly’s Jimmy Carter Syndrome) and those are standout tracks in every instance. Something about DEE pushes out the best of all of those he works with. He is central also because, in his music, he is not satisfied with the truth of the human condition alone; like the rest of the bands seem to be. He doesn’t offer easy answers or Christian sentimentality; instead he sees the need for hope for something to save us outside of ourselves. He understands the inconsistency inherent in our nature. We often see the failures, corruption, rebellion and, even, sin of man (not always our own), and, yet, we think that something in us or in man can fix the problem. This is the inconsistency that has at the very basic level kept me from ever denying the Christian faith—though I am full of doubts—and I see that solution in everything that is not the gospel; the grace of God. This is something that DEE gets, also, and, though he finds compliment with the dark tone of the rest of the bands in the genre, he sees the hope of Christ in it all. The only thing in the world that doesn’t come from us on one level or another.
The brilliance of all of the incarnations of this music whether it be in the original manifestations in Denver, CO or if it is in the descendants of the sound coming from all over the country is its imagery and tone that would make good fodder for the host of post-apocalyptic films out there. Much like The Police did for mainstreaming Reggae into the realm of rock, gothic americana does for bringing bluegrass and Appalachian influences into the realm of folk music. This music often reminds me of some Appalachian ram-shackle cabin out in the sticks with older, bearded men with banjos and younger men sipping some moonshine coming straight out the pipe. The poverty, Pentecostal religion, and folk mythology interplaying and weaving together in a dark and mysterious mystic river flow. Gothic americana taps into that mystical and truly unexplainable relationship between human nature and faith in the woods of the deep South.
This music is important to me in so many ways. There is something in it that fills in the words of the writers of the South like O’Connor, Percy and Faulkner. It is a music that expresses the contradictions of the South so well. It truly is Christ-haunted, the Christ story is all over the blueprints of the music, but it is distorted to the point where it has no power and no grace to give to the undeserving. Much like the religion of the South, Christ is almost unrecognizable beneath the schemes and corruption of the Pharisees and the prodigals. Most of this music comes down on the listener like the holy Law comes down on those who cannot live up to its demands. The music is condemning and does so in a way that misappropriates the Christ story for their purposes. If Christ was more than a ghost in the South and in gothic americana then grace would ultimately shine through it, but that’s not the South; so if gothic americana showed grace (and, like I said before, it often does in the music of DEE) then the genre as a whole would not be representative with its regional kinship. DEE stands alone as the representative of the grace-loving believers that seem to be such a minority in the Deep South.
These bands have tapped into a feeling that is so hard to grasp academically, intellectually, with music which, more often than not, is able to grasp the ineffable elements of knowledge that our reason can’t quite grasp (or refuses to grasp). Which is why this music is so effective. It tells the story of people who poor and forgotten, charismatic and pharisaical, tied to the myths of the past and unable to move much beyond them in the future. This music is a testament to the intricacies of a whole American region and this is exactly why it is the most rigorous, extensive and true formulation of folk/americana music in America at this time.
Top Ten Albums of the Year
1. Wovenhand - Wovenhand
2. O’Death - Outside
3. Munly & the Lupercalians - Petr & the Wulf
4. 16 Horsepower - Low Estate
5. Slim Cessna’s Auto Club - Cipher
6. Lilium - Transmission of All the Goodbyes
7. Viarosa - Where The Killers Run
8. Jay Munly - Jimmy Carter Syndrome
9. The Builders and The Butchers - Salvation is a Deep, Dark Well
10. Slim Cessna’s Auto Club - Always Say Please and Thank You
The Sad Bastard Book Club - The Collected Short Stories of Carrie Anne Crowe
Generally speaking, by this time of the year I am just cruising through the final albums and am probably not at the top of my game as far as paying appropriate attention or writing good reviews. That being said, it is tougher on the final albums on the year to grab my attention and I think this is even more true this year, because of the nature of the music. No normal person should spend this much time devoted to gothic americana, but I did and it wasn’t without merit. That being said, it speaks well for The Collected Short Stories of Carrie Anne Crowe that this is the case, because I was completely engrossed with this album. There was no difficulty in listening to it during these last four days. Matter of fact, it was a fitting final album for the year. It was darker than most I listened to this year and it was full of energy and strangely endearing elements.
The music is largely minimal but what they do include for instrumentation works well and ends up feeling more full than most of the bands this year that had a full ‘wall of sound.’ In the realm of percussion, they were more in line with The Builders and The Butchers in that they used all sorts of beat-makers, especially hand claps, to move the songs along. Electric guitar was not as prevalent but when it shows up it is a welcome appearance and adds a nice layer to the songs. The banjo picking is solid, as well. The only real drawback (and its not necessarily a detrimental drawback) is the vocal work. None of the guys in the band sounded like they could legitimately hold a note, but in the economy of the album and music, terrific singing was not necessarily needed. However, I would have been curious to see what some solid vocal talent could have done with the material.
The first four songs of the album slide us into the dark and deadly world of The Sad Bastard Book Club and are amongst the finer songs on the album. There may have been little dull areas here and there in the middle of the album, but, for the most part, the album plays well even on the 21st listen (which I am currently doing as I write this). ”The Pleasure Machines” was a surprisingly addictive, short instrumental track that always captured my attention as well as the original version of “The Pauper Choir of Mathias, AZ” which went for tone and less for the chain gang feel of the opening track version. There are some incredibly great tunes on this album and none of it is fancy. Just some great compositions put together well. You can’t ask much more of an album at the end of the day.
Apocalyptic Rating: 10 out of 10 (The Fires cometh, the Anti-Christ speaks and the kingdom comes to ruin)
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Viarosa - Send For The Sea
Not nearly as engrossing as Where The Killers Run, Send For The Sea is able to conjure up enough to keep it from slipping into the sophomore slump category that affects so many bands. Whereas their last album dealt in beautiful melodies and excellent harmonies, this effort is more restrained and quiet. This is not to say that there are not beautiful moments on this album, there are, but they are fewer and farther between. The one element that did transfer wholly from the last album is the vocal work of Richard Neuberg and Emma Seal. Most of the album has the same emotional intensity that was present in their debut album. Going from fragile and thoughtful to vicious and strong is not always an easy feat to make, but Neuberg is largely successful and even at his most riled up, Seal is able to counter with her beautiful and sweet voice. There are moments, however, where some of the vocal emphases and exaggerations that Neuberg plays with end up becoming distracting, if not downright intolerable. The final moments of “The Last Resolve” being a prime example, where the harmony seems more like a dying cat than actual singing. Thankfully, this is rare in the album, but when it does appear, it does grate on the senses.
All that being said, the first half of the album is easily the strongest portion. It is paced well (much like the whole of Where The Killers Run) and the melodies are just effective and overwhelming. There are some incredibly sublime moments in the first half, but, once the final half takes over, the songs seem a little aimless and wandering without a home in mind. Three of the final five songs are over six minutes and, all, strive to be epic and ethereal, at the same time. But it is hard to do epic without making the listener, especially this one, tire of it eventually. Some of the instruments used were distracting as well and seemed to go against the tone of the songs as well. But none of the album is just trash, but when compared to their last album, this one can do nothing more than pale in comparison.
I did, however, find the narrative of the, I assume, homeless man in NYC that provided the bookends for the album to be rather intriguing and a nice touch to tie the whole of the album together. Especially considering the subject matter that dealt with the nature of the miraculous and the modern world’s inability (or unwillingness) to see the hand of the Divine in even the greatest of disasters.
Apocalyptic Rating: 3 out of 10 (If you head out and dig in, you’ll beat the noise)
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Viarosa - Where The Killers Run (Bonus Track Version)
From the first strum of the guitar to the last, this album is an impressive set of songs that are both melodically beautiful and appropriately melancholy in their feel. The dynamics of folk, bluegrass and rock are off the charts. Each song has the unexpected ability to morph from a slow ballad to a hard-hitting rock song and vice versa. The back and forth vocals of Richard Neuberg and Emma Seal is stark as it is versatile. Neuberg, the front man, is well-supported by the feminine vocal touches that punctuate most of the songs and when Seal has her own solo moments, she often steals the show. This is a duo that would challenge the best of the best in male/female duos. The thing I love about this album the most, though, is that it plays just as well as background music as it does when intently listening. This is music that truly moves my soul. Even though the lyrics can often be darker in nature, it never feels like it is unsafe. Matter of fact, this album could be considered a beautiful siren that draws the listener in to their doom against the rocky cliffs. Very easily could be.
On top of all of that, the album is extremely consistent (one of the tops of the years) and is not halted by a single track on it. Even the bonus tracks fit in nicely with the rest of the album, not detracting from the overall feel and emotion and lyrical content of the rest of the songs. “Blindfold” begins the record with slow-burning intensity and it is easily a key track on the record. “Blood from a Stone,” “Poor Man’s Prayer” and the title track all have the melodies and energy needed to make them equally enthralling. However, the show is stolen by the final two tracks of the actual album, “Soul Light” and “Wake” which ooze with atmosphere, not unlike the instrumentation found on Sigur Ros and Hammock. This band is one more reason why British bands can often make unique and sometimes improve upon a formula that is American in origin. This is an excellent addition to the year of gothic americana and I am looking forward to hearing their next album!
Apocalyptic Rating: 5 out of 10 (What a way, what-a-way to hang your head)
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Sons of Perdition - Psalms for the Spiritually Dead
After last week’s album, this was an improvement. More cohesiveness and consistency, more atmosphere to tie the songs together and the lyrics were much more interesting over all. All those things considered, this still is not on par with most of the material I have listened to this year. And, to be honest, I thought I had finished up my seven weeks of Those Poor Bastards three weeks ago. I didn’t really want another round of them. Put these guys (or even Those Poor Bastards) up against David Eugene Edwards, Slim Cessna, Pascal Humbert, and Jay Munly and they would sink to the bottom fairly quickly. There is just not much going on in these two records. There were a few more songs that I thought were alright this time then I found on the last album. However, seeing the trajectory of this band, I doubt I will buy any more of their work.
Turning to the more positive side of the album, there were a couple of solid songs that caught my attention right off the bat and carried me through the week (admittedly these have been two of the hardest weeks of the year). “Psalm of Nod” with its spiritual sound and call-and-response, “Psalm of Solitude” with its grinding atmosphere and “Psalm 138” with its interesting parallel between the doubt of the song and the praise of the title psalm from the Bible, all made for interesting highlights to an otherwise rather unspectacular album. However, this album was easily better than their last one.
Apocalyptic Rating: 6 out of 10
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Sons of Perdition - The Kingdom Is On Fire
I am just gonna tell it like it is. I didn’t like this album. Matter of fact, it was one of the hardest albums to get through the week on since the Reverend Glasseye albums and I didn’t come away with near the appreciation for these guys as I did, in the end, with Glasseye (not that Glasseye is a favorite or anything). This might as well have been a Those Poor Bastards album. Zebulon Whatley (probably not his real name) sings as if he is incarnating the spirit of Lonesome Wyatt. I don’t think Sons of Perdition quite get the mixture and frenetic elements that, at least, made Those Poor Bastards interesting, if not good. However, Whatley does have a better voice than Wyatt, but he just doesn’t use it like he should. I read a review on the internet that said that Sons of Perdition is a band that Lonesome Wyatt, himself, gave his support of and it makes sense, they are, within reason, practically the same band. Except the student does not even come close to the work of the teacher.
This is not to say that every song was not good, but it very nearly is. The three songs that I put up this week really were the highlights of the album. The songs that either musically or lyrically (seldom both simultaneously) carried the work of the album are worthy of recognition. Unfortunately, there is not much more. The music, often, sounds like an “indie-fied” re-dressing of old school country B-sides, but not as interesting instrumentally or as far as the presence of the performer. I do, to some level, feel bad for this rather scathing review, but I just didn’t like this album within the economy of gothic americana. I don’t buy that this band, in the scope of this album alone, is a significant factor in the world of the gothic americana genre. Maybe the next album will prove me wrong, but I am not holding out hope.
Apocalyptic Rating: 5 out of 10 (Lord, let they glory shine)
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Strawfoot - How We Prospered
Even though their last album was quite good in its own right, this album is significantly better. It is more cohesive musically and thematically. From the first song to the last, this album presents music that is engaging both lyrically and musically. Marcus Eder’s vocals are less twangy and have a fuller edge to them which improves the overall sound of the band. It worked for Chasing Locusts, but it would not have fit well with the atmosphere of this album. They also allowed the electric guitars to have more of a premiere place in the songs as well, but they do it in such a way where it does not overpower the acoustic and bluegrass elements. “Invisible Man” is the most effortless example of the combination of both of these elements into a sonic unity. It has power and grabs your attention from the beginning. This is a pleasing record and one which I will probably include in my top albums for the year.
There are a couple of songs that really stretch the overall sound of the band: “Independence Day” and “Churchyard Cough.” “Independence Day” sounds more like something from a singer-songwriter’s solo album. It is simple, but dark and effective. Easily the best song on this album overall. The lyrics mix allusions of American past and familial conflict that shows an intensity not found in most work by singer-songwriters. “Churchyard Cough” made me do a double take on the first listen because it sounded like it had been ripped directly from a Flogging Molly album. The vocals were almost indistinguishable from Dave King and I automatically fell for this rather short, frantic song. Neither one of these songs would have been expected from Strawfoot but were a welcomed addition and a sign of talent and willingness to stretch themselves and the image of their band. Spectacular album and looking forward to seeing where they go from here.
Apocalyptic Rating: 9 out of 10 (Oh come and sit beside me, I’ll share a dreadful tale)
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Strawfoot - Chasing Locusts
Strawfoot’s first album hinges on one musical concept and one narrative concept. The musical concept is largely focused on a more complex version of the old-school country model with inflections of bluegrass and eastern European influences. Most of the album plays like a solid country album (and I am not talking about the general pop-laden country on the radio). However, bring in the electric guitar and a distinct rock attitude to the initial formula. One element that has not been a significant element of gothic americana music up to this point, but is prominently displayed on Chasing Locusts is use of solos in the songs. There are guitar, harmonica, fiddle, and piano solos abounding in the midst of the songs sung. With many bands, this seems to be more of a sign of ego than anything, but Strawfoot does well in working it effortlessly into the context of the whole song. In other words, it doesn’t feel out of place or like the band is show-boating. However, it is exactly the instrumentation that drives this band. They have little to no atmospheric presence and no wall of sound to build a denseness to their sound. Which is why this album, musically, plays fairly lightly and doesn’t seem to suffocate in the darkness of the lyrics.
It is the lyrics that give this album any significant darkness. The album is book-ended by two instances of Strawfoot’s cover of “Wayfaring Stranger” which is exactly the narrative that this album wishes to tell to its listeners. These are largely tales of faith becoming absurd and lost, “good people” becoming the worst of all sinners and a defiant stance in the face of a perceived judgmental god. These stories can go from almost humorous (“My Dog”) to murderous (“Cursed Neck”) to defiant (“The Lord’s Wrath” and “Damnation Way”) and everything in between. It is an interesting pick for the album to be surrounded by a traditionally recognized spiritual about faith and sin and redemption when every song on this album revels the dark and unredeemed aspects of life. But, even then, one can’t help but hear some honesty and spiritual prodding going on in these songs as the characters give in to their own natures, even to the point of walking away from God and telling him that he “can keep his wrath.” These characters are what Flannery O’Connor would call elements of the grotesque South. But even they can’t escape the violent grace of their Creator. This album is immensely satisfying even if it isn’t immensely joyful.
Apocalyptic Rating: 7 out of 10 (You can try to pass the blame but you need an effigy)
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