Mute: The instrumental variations by The Blackheart Orchestra. Release date 25th June 2021
Mute is available now as a limited edition CD exclusively from The Blackheart Orchestra’s Bandcamp site at https://theblackheartorchestra1.bandcamp.com/merch
and from June 25 will be available to download and stream everywhere
Given that one of Blackheart Orchestra’s defining features is Chrissy Mostyn’s beautiful voice and its remarkable range and variation, I expect most reviewers will courteously question how this outstanding contribution to this remarkable band’s catalogue came to be. Rick Pilkington and Chrissy Mostyn are spectacular multi-instrumentalists which is presumably why so many reviewers say you must see them live.
Mute will be welcomed by fans, newcomers, and critics alike. Rick was telling me that:
“During the pandemic we decided to do a project where we chose our favourite tracks off our three previous albums and created completely instrumental versions of them. Once the project started we found ourselves extending the songs further and further, rearranging and reinventing them, totally recreating them in a new form. Then we got really carried away and started adding orchestration using full string arrangements, brass and orchestral percussion.”
Whatever the project’s origins, it should be said upfront that like Philip Glass’s reworkings of Low and “Heroes”, Mute stands up on its own. As Chopin did with the Polonaises, Rick and Chrissy in Mute are reworking themes, not just presenting an instrumental greatest hits collection.
Those of you who are familiar with the three albums from which these pieces have evolved (and indeed their excellent archived earliest work), will know that Rick and Chrissy’s musicianship is the umami, underscoring flamboyant crescendos and delicate melodies. It’s natural that Mute can be taken as a whole. I think listeners will take Mute in its entirety and not track pick. Like all excellent albums the whole is greater than the sum.
I doubt they aimed for the effect they’ve achieved with the absence of Chrissy’s mute voice. In places they use the orchestration to provide the melody that Chrissy Sinatra-like carries above the accompaniment, but in others it’s left absent, as Wakeman does on Piano Portraits, leaving the listener wondering if the vocals are so familiar the brain is providing the tune, or if as Roger Waters describes it, we’re hearing the melody as an invisible line in the “spaces between the notes.” I am unable to say objectively. I have been listening to their work intensely since long before Satellite blew me away. It’s good timing, with Wakeman breaking new ground with the first instrumental number one in the UK, and the rise of the instrumentalists, Agnes Obel being the first to come to mind.
I’m never sure a review of each individual track in order is that helpful, particularly when treating Mute as an innovative take on the greatest hits theme. Each of the three previous albums, Songs from a Satellite, Diving for Roses and Mesmeranto have been well-represented, my rough count being three apiece from Satellite and Roses, and five from the latest, Mesmeranto, which by a shade is probably the best of the three, although Satellite will always be special, a bit like those Bowie fans who stick to Hunky Dory however spectacular the vision of a “Heroes” or Scary Monsters. I feel completely comfortable putting the Blackheart Orchestra in that company.
Diving for Roses’ pivotal track is Hypnotize and I say that comes through on Mute. Sitting at number six, it reminds me of Botham swaggering onto the field windmilling his bat like Townsend in his pomp. Rick and Chrissy have not consciously been influenced by Gordon Giltrap but they’ve worked with Stackridge and the Strawbs who would have been well-aware of Giltrap, so an influence may have come through in the wash. Older listeners might well remember Giltrap’s Visionary.
I do like the track order; it works naturally and there’s a theme, again perhaps unintentional like the ghostly vocals and Giltrap. The opening five tracks are a mix of rockers from Mesmeranto and Satellite, and we build to the central climax of Hypnotize with Rain on Me and The Romance, two rousing renditions from the symphonic Satellite. There is a real feeling that for the second time in their career Rick and Chrissy are drawing a line in the sand. If that’s the case, watch this space. The next album will an evolution along the lines of their pre-Satellite work, that closure being defined by the Orchestra rebrand.
Mute is a fabulous five star cut. Rick and Chrissy are to be roundly congratulated on a most productive and creative lockdown. The heavier reworking of the classic numbers, many of which will be familiar to fans who are used to seeing the harder rocking versions live, may well be an implied announcement of a subtle change in direction. Who would have thought fifty years ago that Psychedelic Folk Rock’s future would be in such safe hands?