Sunday, December 13, 2009

Red of Tooth and Claw - the raw sound of Murder by Death

You could be forgiven for not expecting a lot of subtlety from a band that calls itself 'Murder by Death' and, to be sure, their album Red of Tooth and Claw shows us a violent, hate-filled soul in all its rawness, where every song sounds rather like Nick Cave rubbed down to the bone by gravel and dirt. It's a cycle of songs that plays like a macabre post-punk parody of Schubert's Winterreise, where a man wanders, dislocated, connecting only with everything harsh, hard, hedonistic and hateful.

The music is driven along by rough, dark tones - a beat that drives forwards and never lets anything rest, aflame with a fire that burns rather than warms, and that gives out smoke rather than light.

But the thing that stops this album from being just a one-dimensional, if still potent, portrayal of the dark side of life, is the brilliant addition of cello into the ensemble. Against the harsh electric guitars, the rugged, rough baritone of Adam Turla, the cello sings and cries, shining an unexpected light of heart and humanity into the black. The music might be red raw, but with that comes pain, and hurt, like the way the cello wails with yearning and grief throughout 'Black Spot'.

You don't usually expect to hear a cello in music like this, and it's what gives the whole album a depth and a soul so that even when it is at its most violent and hateful, like in 'Rumbrave', or at its most hedonistic, like in the raw sexuality of 'Fuego!', or at its most arrogant and defiant, like in the opening 'Comin' Home', you can't help but feel a kind of empathy with the story, and the man, you are listening to, nor can you help but feel a sense of loss when, with the funeral-like beat of 'Ash', the music seems almost to be mourning the death of its own soul. Is there anything, other than music, that can give that many shades and levels of expression at the one time?

The closing song, 'Spring Break 1899', leaves us with a cynical, empty image of a man who, it seems, will always wander aimlessly and meanignlessly, through towns and "bars full of girls who all know me by name they all drink the same drinks and they all fuck the same". But, even here, things are not straightforward - where the question, "Is it you? Could it be you?", yearning and searching but not wanting to find, is ultimately answered by the cello in a song that, even after all that we have been through, sounds almost tender.

Red of Tooth and Claw is a brutal, even harrowing, album - but it shows us that even the rawest and roughest of souls feel pain, and the blackest of hearts still beat and bleed.

Thanks to Lucas for this recommendation.

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