Just in time for the Autumn Equinox, a trio of albums were released on September 9 that deal with death and spirituality in varying but connected ways. While actual listening enjoyment can also vary, these are all pretty sophisticated treatments of the kind of music I featured 15 years ago on Grim Reapers & Haunted Melancholy: Music of Autumn.
I’ve been listening to Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds’ latest, Skeleton Tree for a couple weeks, and it’s been pretty rough going. I can see why it’s held in high regard, as it is better than his last album. Despite the fact that the album was written before Cave’s family tragedy, the lyrics are eerily prescient of what happened with his son last year. That’s not a big surprise, since he often writes about death. Much of the recording was done after the fact, which explains why Cave sounds so shattered and aged. It seems I’m alone here, but I find such a stark, harrowing listen not all that desirable. It’s the same reason I feel David Bowie’s final album is hugely overrated. It’s understandable when people have a ghoulish fascination with music created in close proximity to death, but I don’t feel it automatically increases the intrinsic value to the listening experience. It makes me nostalgic for Cave’s more exuberant, swaggering work with Grinderman and on Dig, Lazarus, Dig!!! (2008), and of course his late 80’s peak with Your Funeral … My Trial (1986) and Tender Prey (1988) where he sounds like he’s having drinks and swapping jokes with Death rather than being crushed by it. “Jesus Alone,” “Girl In Amber” and “I Need You” are certainly moving, but if I were to experience tragedy on a similar level, I would not turn to this for solace. Those looking for more punishment can go to the theater and see a behind the scenes viewpoint of the creation of the album in the black and white art film “One More Time With Feeling” with some commentary from Cave. While most everything that comes out of Cave’s mouth is intelligent and insightful, that doesn’t mean his last movie, “20,000 Days on Earth” (2014) wasn’t soul-crushingly dull and pretentious. I’ll skip the movie, and file the album away to admire at a distance and probably wait a couple years to revisit.
Released on the same day with much less fanfare, is the far more exciting latest from Wovenhand, Star Treatment. David Eugene Edwards is no stranger to dark subject matter, helping pioneer some brilliant noir Americana with his previous band Sixteen Horsepower, who I was lucky enough to have seen and witnessed Edwards’ intense stage presence up close in a small room. While Nick Cave has used the bible as a source for inspiration for both his music and his novels, it’s more as artistic inspiration than genuine beliefs as far as I can tell. Edwards is genuinely religious, which gives a different, genuine feel to his hell and brimstone tales. While personally I relate more to Cave, I feel recently, Edwards’ work has been more effective, as last couple Wovenhand albums have a more adventurous, exploratory spirit, whereas Cave has gazed more inward in Push The Sky Away (2013) and wallowed in mourning on Skeleton Tree. I’ve noticed both in forums and at recent shows, Wovenhand has attracted a sizable audience of metal fans. While there’s little in the music to indicate a connection, he’s attracted people with his spiritual and emotional intensity. Edwards seems to have embraced this audience by sticking with Chicago metal dream team of Sanford Parker and Collin Jordan who also recorded (at Steve Albini’s Electrical Audio), mixed and mastered Refractory Obdurate (2014).
Star Treatment is only just a smidge heavier overall, but it is a step forward and more diverse than previous work. The title refers to the fact that most of the world’s religions are astro-religions, based on the stars and their movements. There are also references in the album art and music to Native American culture. Edwards grew up around it, and while he says he attends pow wows and spends money on their art and attire, he does not presume the privilege to participate. He’s paying tribute to the original owners of the land he lives on. There’s few better tributes than music from Wovenhand. While signature raucous crescendos can be found on tracks like “The Quiver,” Stooges and Birthday Party post-punk crunch on “Come Brave” and country goth on “The Hired Hand,” further highlights are the more subtle, trance-inducing tracks like “All Your Waves,” which sounds like an eerie, hallucinogenic incantation, accented with an incessant tamaracas. The subject matter is more celestial, concerning out ancient fascination with the stars and the infinite cosmos beyond. Compared to being bludgeoned by mortality on Skeleton Tree, Star Treatment is absolutely liberating. “Golden Blossom” finds Edwards sounding positively jubilant. Whether it’s simply a love song, or about joining a lover in the afterlife, it really is uplifting, which is no small feat. Interestingly, “Crystal Palace,” with the use of it’s chorus, sounds a bit like a nod to Bowie, though to my ears much more listenable than anything on Blackstar. With the droning Middle-Eastern melody on “Crook And Flail,” he address the Egyptians’ interests in the stars amongst the Valley of the Kings. “Low Twelve” is the best 80s era Nick Cave song that the man himself hasn’t matched in years. A brilliant close to Wovenhand’s best album yet. Of course Edwards can’t surpass the massive influence of the careers of those older artists, but he and his band can certainly be considered worthy successors.
Edwards’ interest in Native American culture and spirituality reflected in songs throughout Wovenhand’s catalog and art is shared by Shaun Nunutzi, formerly of the brilliant Iceland-based psych noir band Dead Skeletons. Nunutzi was born in Dublin and is based in Berlin, where he joined up with Venezuela’s Gerald Pasqualin, his mate from another former band, Admiral Black, to form the ever-evolving psychedelic folk of Tau (Native American for “father sun”). Like last year’s Wirikuta EP, their debut album Tau Tau Tau was inspired by a a trip to the northern Mexican Wixarika desert. Whether it was a psilocybin-fueled spiritual journey I don’t know, but the album is a nice kickoff to a psychedelic experience. Recording commenced on the day Bowie died, and they invited a number of collaborators to participate, including members of Siouxsie & the Banshees and Tindersticks. In addition to the spiritual music of North and South America in “Venadito” and “Kauyumari” (both odes to the Great Deer Spirit, with the latter sounding like Ian Curtis leading a prayer before female vocalists lifting it to the heavens), “Mother” and “Midnight Jaguar,” they explore songs of praise throughout the globe. “The Bridge Of Khaju” is influenced by ancient Persian Sufi poetry; “Espiral” (Spiral), is their take on a chant song from Temazcal Sweatlodges, but I dare say with a bit more noisy rock ‘n’ roll accoutrements. On “Mo Anam Cara” (soul mate) and “Tara,” they dig into Nunutzi’s Gaelic roots. The former is as close they get to their 60s psych pop roots with harmonies by guests Nina Hynes and Miss Kenichi and a lovely, if still minor key melody. “Tara” is an epic album closer that slowly builds with a panoply of sounds, including a haunting trumpet, and pays off with another sinister-sounding minor key vocal melody that reminds me of the influential English dark folk of Comus.
While Nick Cave used to dance and joke with death, his latest has him reeling with the brutal realities of mourning it. I certainly can’t argue with the reasoning for his approach on this album, but perhaps I’m just not yet ready for it. Wovenhand addresses death from a respectful distance, while Tau attempts to circumvent or transcend death by exploring the metaphysical aspects of both ancient spirits and freshly liberated souls. No one approach is inherently superior, but to the hordes of people who will reverently place Cave’s latest album on the top of their year lists (maybe even shrines) alongside David Bowie, owe it to themselves to give slightly less established artists like Wovenhand and Tau a whirl, and be entranced by their own rich, beautiful, psychedelic visions.