That’s the word that keeps coming back to me as I think about (Mankind) The Crafty Ape, the fifth album by prog-rock / post-rock collective Crippled Black Phoenix.
It’s a huge album; a bloody great big concept album in three parts. I couldn’t tell you what the concept is, though, because I’m too busy listening to the superb music that sprawls over its nearly ninety minute running time.
And, if you’re going to make a prog album, you may as well go the whole hog. The first forty-five minutes is awash with songs that could’ve been lifted from 1970s albums from the likes of Pink Floyd, Jethro Tull and Led Zeppelin. The second track, ‘The Heart of Every Country‘ is led by a huge clean lead guitar and a husky male voice, and feels like it could be one of Dave Gilmour’s songs from a mid-period Floyd album. It makes a clear opening statement of where this album is coming from. But not necessarily about where it is going to.
From there things get blusier, the guitars a bit dirtier, and a good layer of organ and classic synths come in, while the rhythm section holds things tight. Jethro Tull would’ve loved to sound as groovy as Crippled Black Phoenix do on ‘Get Down And Live With It,’ while ‘A Letter Concerning Dogheads’ unleashes a huge slab of stoned rock, an organ running counterpoint to the dirty guitars and languid vocals.
The vocals, in particular, are a delight. Joe Volk, on his last album with the collective, sings in a drawling baritone, a profoundly un-operatic voice, not at all what one may expect of an album so drenched in 70s rock. And often a husky and fey female voice joins in, Miriam Wolf’s also adding a higher but no-less-grounded tone, wrapping her vocal lines around Volk’s for something at times beguiling, at times frightening.
By the time the album’s reach its third act, however, the 70s prog begins to turn into something quite different. ‘A Suggestion (Not A Very Nice One)’ kicks off the second disc with a huge blues riff, claustrophobic and sensual, but as the song progresses there’s a sense that the album’s about to open up and take in some different scenery. And so it does, with the dust-and-dobro lashed instrumental of ‘(Dig, Bury, Deny)’ blowing through the album, like emerging into the cool air of a desert night.
‘Operation Mincemeat,’ my favourite song on the album, continues with the sense of open space. Big, reverb lashed guitar, keening slide and throbbing synths underlie a song that’s makes me think of Calexico more than any English progsters; big, vast, gorgeous, and more than a little sad. Again, the male and female voices wind around each other here in a way that brings far more emotional heft than more spectacular singing could ever do.
And the album ends with a fifteen minute post-rock epic, a track with one of the best song titles ever – ‘Faced With Complete Failure, Utter Defiance Is The Only Response.’ An instrumental that builds and builds before crashing towards an end as a robotic voice drones “use your anger to creatively destroy your oppressors,” over and over. And that’s probably the concept of the album, but that’s a moot point, because the sheer magnificence of the closing half hour is all I’m thinking about by then.
If this was simply a prog-rock revivalist album playing versions of 70s favourites I probably wouldn’t have given the album too much thought. But the last disc, the last movement, is something quite other, something quite profound. Thirty five minutes of huge, sweeping, majestic music, swamped with almost an overload of emotions, both sad and triumphant.
Crippled Black Phoenix have been tagged with a ridiculous nickname, “balladeers of the end times.” However, the third act of (Mankind) The Crafty Ape suits that name perfectly. Post-apocalyptic balladeers.
Beer match: I reckon you’d want a nice brown ale for the first disc, to go with the 70s vibe. Try 8 Wired’s ‘Rewired’ for a brilliant local example of that style. But for the last disc, with its vast, scenic openness, go for an IPA. Green Flash’s West Coast IPA would be perfect, bright and fresh and as stimulating as the music.