Crippled Black Phoenix – (Mankind) The Crafty Ape (2012)

Magnificent.

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.

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Rhian Sheehan – Stories From Elsewhere (2013)

Wellington’s Rhian Sheehan has been constructing intricate and gorgeous instrumental (mostly) music for a while now, both for albums under his own name and for a number of film and television projects.   His 2009 album Standing In Silence was a masterpiece, propulsive electronic elements carrying forward an album tied together by sampled musical boxes, hints of guitar, and massive symphonic emotional heft.

"Stories From Elsewhere" cover art by Kieran Rynhart.

“Stories From Elsewhere” cover art by Kieran Rynhart.

Sheehan’s latest album, Stories from Elsewhere, is a more organic thing.  The electronica elements are still there – loops of bells, chimes and music boxes[1], but they’re further subsumed within great swirls of strings, piano, guitar and bass, and drums.

Drums.  When I first heard the live drums played by Steve Bremner roll into track two, “The Upper Sky,” I was taken aback by the unexpected new element in Sheehan’s sound. Deep and laden in echo, cymbals splashing white noise throughout the mix.

Almost distracting, quite unexpected, carrying a sense of organic space that was quite unlike the intimate closeness that lay within the sound of Standing in Silence.  But utterly representative of where Sheehan was going with Stories from Elsewhere.  If the prior album was a step away from Sheehan’s earlier electronica style, this was a massive leap into an orchestral style of post-rock, a further diving into the concept of a “soundtrack without a movie.”

One, track, “Nusquam,” is almost entirely the string section alone.  It is gorgeous.

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