Sunday, 11 March 2012

Crippled Black Phoenix - (Mankind) The Crafty Ape

For once I'm not going to delve too deeply into how I got into the band or whatever, because no-one really cares, and I have far more important things to say about this record and this band. Suffice to say I am a fan of everything Justin Greaves has turned his hand to, from the spastic powerviolence of Hard To Swallow, the inhuman, vomitous sludge of Iron Monkey, through his playing on Electric Wizard's 'We Live', his cacophonous collaboration with Sunn O)))'s Stephen O Malley, Greg Anderson and Cathedral's Lee Dorrian in Teeth Of Lions Rule The Divine, through to his singular vision and most far-reaching project to date, Crippled Black Phoenix.

Okay maybe I am delving a little, but seriously, this man never fails to keep my interest no matter what he's playing. So it was with great expectation and excitment that I picked up this latest double-LP.

The first thing I want to talk about was my initial reaction.
When I saw the cover art for this album, I won't lie, I was a bit disappointed. All the previous releases have been beautifully presented in meticulously vintage designs with a very olde world feel, looking more like ancient tomes you'd find hidden in an old library, so seeing this modern, garish illustration of a guy with a dog's head was a bit of a contrast. But that's when I remembered the old saying, to never judge a book (or record for that matter) by it's cover. So I handed over my money for the music within.

The first time I heard a single note of the album I was with my girl, also a fan, and we listened through the whole thing probably with our standards set by previous albums. And again, on first impression I didn't quite get it. All the constituent elements were there, the grandiose, sweeping songs, the progressive use of unusual instrumentation, but it just didn't click with me on first listen.

A week later, and I'm packing up all my records before I leave the country indefinitely. I figure it needs another spin before it's consigned to a cardboard box for fuck knows how long. That's when it hits me. I don't know what makes this time any different, maybe I'm just in one of those moods where I'm willing to dig a little deeper, read between lines and to really listen.

This album, despite it's relative obscurity in the grand scheme of things, is subversive. Re-read the list of Greaves' previous endeavours. All of those bands and releases are working within very much underground idioms, hiding their messages beneath tortured cries and impenetrable walls of distortion. I always regard certain musical and ideological cultures as preaching to the converted to some degree. Despite my own affinity for genres like crust punk, sludge, d-beat, grind and various other forms of aural bleach, your man-on-the-street isn't going to listen to Discharge and re-think his views on the horrors of war, or hear Napalm Death and be interested enough to read the lyric sheets extolling anti-corporate sentiments. The people who listen to that music are already aware, they have their opinions and ideas, and they find affirmation in hearing it set to appropriately ugly music.

Crippled Black Phoenix are subversive. You can achieve further reach working WITHIN the system, than AGAINST it. Maybe I'm reading too much into the lyrics, which have had similar themes in every release prior to this one, and Greaves and co are just making the music they want to hear for their own enjoyment.
But it has to be more than that. They have too much to say, and working these words into something that could easily appear in Q, Classic Rock, or even NME (and that is by no means a slight, this is intelligent music, well-crafted songs played by talented musicians) reviews, features and end-of-year lists may well just expose them to people who aren't used to this perspective on the state of things. It feels like a clarion call to anyone with the ears to hear it.

There is a consistent theme of rebellion, of free thought, and of rising up against the status quo, challenging apathy and complacence. Lyrics such as "He who speaks up gets shot down. Choose to follow, choose to drown." and "Apathetic men awake to some nightmare unfolding. Don't complain. Cut and fight. For until battle comes, we're the slaves to a beat of an unchellenged drum." call to mind, at least for myself, another free-thinking man working within subversive mediums; Alan Moore. Read his most famous works, don't dare view the atrocities that are their Americanised screen adaptations, and hopefully you'll see what I'm talking about.
I'm getting off topic, but that itself is the beauty of this album. It makes you think. It makes synapses fire, creates connections in your mind, encourages you to dig a little deeper into the message.

From the lyrics to the artwork, which I initially dismissed as no good just because it was different to what I knew, everything is presented in stark terms, the messages writ large in ink, bold propaganda-esque black-on-red graphics, absolutely no concession made to ambiguity.
This is why I will never understand the modern propensity to dismiss physical product, ignore approaching artwork (both audio and visual) as a complete package. That illustration I thought so ridiculous upon first seeing it? That means something. But it's not until you dig a little deeper, read and hear the words behind it, that you'll understand just what it represents, and how significant and appropriate it is within the context of this album, this band.

I told you I had plenty to say, right? I guess at some point in this 'abum review' I should get around to talking about the music, eh?

The opening of the whole 80-minute opus is a robotic command to Use Your Anger To Creatively Destroy Your Oppressors. It sounds like Styx if they decided to adopt Orwell as the basis for lyrical content rather than pidgin-Japanese nonsense. Crashing guitar and drums follow, at a speed reminiscent of Greaves' days in Iron Monkey. The old dog has a thousand new tricks though.

Tolling bells and swooping synths start off 'The Heart Of Every Country'. Gentle, plaintive acoustic picking fades in for a couple of minutes before bright, clean guitars wring out aching melodies. It's strange to think that this could appeal to just about anyone, musically. It perfectly embodies what I said about it's subversiveness, it's accessibility allows it the possibility of radio airplay. Well, it would if there were any stations/DJs with even a shred of taste and free will. The lyrics themselves almost speak of this very idea; "To see, you must immerse yourself in common creed". The words of the wolf among sheep.

The almost-lounge louche-ness of the rhythm guitar during the verses, and liquid flow of the occaisional lead is something I enjoy despite myself. It's a far cry from what I usually listen to. I loathe guitar solos for the most part, but somehow I never get bored of Karl Demata's playing. It never feels like showing off, it's always in the service of the song. Also, there's some hammond organ in there, which anyone who's read any of my other reviews will know always does it for me. Fucking love a bit of hammond, I do!

Drum circle rhythm and vaguely eastern harmonies are the backbone of 'Get Down And Live With It', and marks the return of Daisy Chapman's vocals, a low-in-the-mix croon. Those drums rumble and drive her into the cry she lets out when singing the titular phrase before she's joined by regular (and now departed?) vocalist Joe Volk, telling you to do the same, to "get down and live with it, or shut your mouth you prick", managing to convey subtle threat without sounding brattish and immature. Kicking against the pricks who deserve kicking.
The song shifts down a gear, the drums becoming more subtle, accompanying only piano and ebow. it's like the calm after the storm.

A brief Floyd-ish interlude follows, the demented pulse of footsteps on board, the ticking of an enormous clock, the beat of a heart, and frantically tolling bells before we receive 'A Letter Concerning Dogheads'.

More of that doomed tempo and lush organ, while the words decry the authority of churches and ruling classes, exposing the myth of cynocephaly. Jazzy lead and crunchy rhythm guitars, ringing piano notes, before it all comes together in a mournful march to the end.

The closest thing the album has to a single is next, it has a video and everything, look!

You can see and hear for yourself the aesthetic I've been banging on about, the masked defiance, all wrapped in the guise of a driving, driven, 'rock song'. I don't need to talk too much about this one since you can hear it for yourself, save to say I like it. It's a bit repetitive, but not to the extend that it outstays it's welcome. Though for ideal infiltration purposes, they ought to have made it run for only 3:30...

'Born In A Hurricane' parps in with some blaring brass, which no matter what the band, is just a massive no-no for me. But I stick it out because it only happens a couple of times. Now this one DOES only last for about three-and-a-half minutes, but it's much less of a verse-chorus-verse structure. It just goes and goes, never pausing except to annoy me with those brass noises. They play through the second half of the song, and... could it be... no... it actually works?! Preposterous. So turns out I don't ENTIRELY hate the horns. Still, no more, please. The pace picks up, sounding downright FUNKY. The man who once blasted out nihilistic powerviolence beats is now jamming on funk-rock songs with horn sections. Strange, how life goes sometimes...

The second record opens with 'Release The Clowns', dual guitar strums leading to a disorientating, woozy verse. Vocal duties are once again split between Volk and Chapman. Classic guitar soloing leads (get it? christ I'm unfunny...) the track to a close.

'(What?)' is a weird little mandolin-led gypsy polka-sounding thing, Greaves occaisionally yelping 'what?' throughout for fuck knows what reason. It's like a Tom Waits session that Tom forgot to show up to. Bizarre.

'A Suggestion (Not A Very Nice One)' comes off sounding like latter-day Clutch, of all things, at least to my weird ears. Even the lyrics have that short, sharp, vague phrasing so beloved of Neil Fallon.

My writing/imagination must be getting lazy as I go on, because all I can think of are comparisons for each song. I'll try and make this the last one.
'(Dig, Bury, Deny)' sounds like the audio equivalent of the hopeless trudge across desolate wastelands that I picture every time I read Cormac McCarthy's The Road. Sparse, haunting, minimal, it's like tumbleweed and dry wind. It's a pallette-cleanser into the incredible 'Operation Mincemeat'.

Crippled Black Phoenix have lamented World War II before, on previous album I, Vigilante. The track there, 'Bastogne Blues', is actually very similar to this one in tempo, instrumentation and atmosphere. I hope it's a trend that continues with future releases.
The way Volk's vocals sing speculatively of The Man Who Never Was, with a low, sombre croon is just perfect. When he's joined by Belinda Kordic's multi-layered voice, the effect is just... urgh. Ridiculously good.
The piano, funeral march drum, mournful violins... it's just as good as it gets. There are horns in this song, though I cannot find a fault with even that.
Play this back to back with 'Bastogne Blues' and get me to look at photos of fallen soldiers if you ever want me to choke up.

The final side, the last twenty minutes of music is comprised of only two tracks, the instrumental 'We'll Never Get Out Of This World Alive/Faced With Complete Failure, Utter Defiance Is The Only Response'.
I actually can't describe these. I mean, I could, but really, it's gotten to the stage where if I haven't intrigued and convinced you of this album already, then you should buy it just to hear these tracks alone. The very definition of epic. Not as a lazy description the way most people use the word to describe anything and everything, these sounds truly are cinematic in scope. Please just listen for youself and give my poor typing fingers a rest.
The final seconds close out with the same motif that opened this musical statement of intent. The words scream at you from the speakers and the liner notes pictured below...

I really hope that wasn't boring to sit and suffer reading through. I just really need people to appreciate this band, to look a little deeper than 'a cool band name to appear in my library', and to fire up their brains.
This is not background music, and this is a band who are more punk than the endless Dis-clones hawking their wares on revivalist trends.

Please go buy it, download it (legally, in exchange for money, you cheap prick), go see them live, anything.
Read the lyrics, the annotated explanations of the songs, figure out for yourself the significance of the doghead, research Siats, realise the significance of Glyndwr Michael, think for yourself, but pay attention to the thoughts expressed within this album.

Buy (Mankind) The Crafty Ape from MLG

Get hold of all previous releases from Invada

And read more about Mr Greaves in this fucking brilliant interview

Rise Up And Fight.

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