The Blackheart Orchestra
Esoteric/Antenna ASIN : B07WJR9TFN released 2019
Five stars (essential)
There is a paradox at the heart (pun intended on several levels) of this review. One wants to praise the album and then discuss its origins, story, and influences yet this is precisely the sort of work, complete and of itself, that you might prefer to take cold.
The Blackheart Orchestra has been discussed extensively in these pages and it’s likely that readers of this article will be familiar with their previous outings, Songs From A Satellite and Diving For Roses. If you approach music with my kind of professional detachment what you’ve probably done is play Satellite to death, that in itself excellent preparation for Roses’ minimalist purity. Mesmeranto retains Satellite’s melody and Roses’ purity but brings the experimentation of the previous two to a sharper focus.
For a band winning its spurs in its own right, too much can be made of the Blackheart Orchestra being feted by previous generations’ stars like Renaissance, Stackridge, Hawkwind and the Strawbs. This idle reviewer is tempted by pigeon holes and I suppose the Blackheart Orchestra will always be bracketed with the heavier end of English psychedelic folk, or as Travis and Al Stewart are Scottish (as indeed is Ian Anderson) I should say British, and they end up in the broad church Progressive Rock. Mesmeranto progresses the genre considerably, so it’s fair enough.
I wonder how many people will come to Mesmeranto cold and if they did whether I’d encourage it. The Blackheart Orchestra are so important last birthday I gave the nearest thing I’ve got to a girlfriend a gold bracelet with Not Over Yet (from Songs From A Satellite) engraved on the inside. That said there is no prescribed order of entry into any band. (Those darkest of art-rockers Van Der Graaf Generator are best approached from the middle and then you work your backwards and forwards.)
Mesmeranto works perfectly as a concept album, one where the tracks are interlinked and in the right order. A concept album is a synergy, the complete symphony or rock opera being a greater work than the sum of its tracks. At sixty minutes, like its predecessors, Mesmeranto on vinyl would have to have been a double album. Digitally, the longer format doesn’t have quite the same economic strictures that restricted double albums in the early years of rock, but all the creative challenges of putting together a sixty minute piece are still there. Half as much again as say Jethro Tull’s seminal forty minute Thick As A Brick.
Songs From A Satellite is a rich feast full of crescendos and drama, whereas Diving For Roses embraces classical minimalism wisely choosing not to compete with Satellite (a particularly voluptuous debut). Both albums edify the other, their contrasts highlighting the other’s strengths. Mesmeranto continues the Blackheart Orchestra’s musical odyssey, developing minimalist themes with delicate experimentation introduced immediately in Ennikur.
Ennikur is a stunning track that sets the scene for the rest of the album. Is it too much to say that if the opening track is this good the rest can’t fail? The ethereal backing vocals menace with the manic edge that colours so much of the Blackheart Orchestra’s oeuvre.
Drown Me Out is a rocker that already sits well with the Blackheart Orchestra’s live spectaculars. It’s not particularly obvious on first listening but on further exploration the band seems to have learned how to get the best out of Chrissy Mostyn’s excellent voice. While Drown Me Out would have been comfortable on either of the previous releases Mesmeranto shows the band prepared to challenge its own shadows. Wolves adds Rick Pilkington’s harmonization, a haunting duet.
All Of Me is a candidate for track of the album with Chrissy’s voice at her best complimented by alternately, piano, lead drums and a wall of sound. The Blackheart Orchestra shows great restraint using sophisticated layering without overdoing it. This is a monumental work and All Of Me ends the beginning.
I am hustles us along, its upbeat rhythm referencing industrial motorik. The Bernard Sumner guitars are surely a conscious nod to Joy Division and New Order. Then another stunner, the quite superb Back to Earth. I haven’t done the full analysis but there is a sense of the rising confidence in Chrissy’s voice with more loosely accompanied vocals carrying the melodies almost unaided. The production is so beautiful one is in danger of missing the tragic lyric. I suspect it’s a synthesised sound, but the brass effect of the descant is a very real highpoint in the album, its psychedelic simplicity echoing none other than the Beatles.
Good Weather features prominent drums and piano, in common with the rest of the album showing off Chrissy’s range with Rick’s beautiful harmonising. Another contender for track of the album (are they all?) with devastating lyrics:
So you pray to a God you don’t believe in
Offer your soul in exchange for healing
The album is now moving through the gears, picking up tempo as do both its predecessors. You and I references the Blackheart Orchestra’s psychedelic folk roots. If there such a thing as a typical Blackheart Orchestra track then Left To Right might be it, exploring the range of Chrissy’s voice with almost disembodied piano accompaniment, and delicate use of layering.
The deceptively simple opening chords of More reflect the depth of Mesmeranto’s ambition and the track builds inexorably to one of the albums crescendo’s. Never do, do I’s light and experimental tone contrasts a playful melody with its darker lyric, a recurring theme throughout this homogenous piece.
There is a strong experimental element to Mesmeranto that runs as a conscious theme without ever being wilfully difficult. With Try, the band plays with complex backing rhythms and rich tones which contrast with Chrissy’s straight, at times austere, vocal. Violet stands out as a relatively typical ballad from the Blackheart Orchestra, the string arrangement providing warmth around a gorgeous piano riff. An outstanding album closes with Another Lifetime, portentous keyboards and after a couple of restrained vocals we get the full Chrissy, pathos, drama and that knowing sense of outgunning her own influences. Is that the third or the fourth candidate for track of the album? This one’s a grower and I can’t wait to see it live.
Mesmeranto. It’s Prog, Jim, but not as we know it.
See the Blackheart Orchestra on 11 September 2020 8pm at the Big Armchair online Facebook concert with further dates to be announced.
© James Douglas