Sailing the Seas of Blood
By Blood Alone’s debut full-length is downright Ptolemaic
Two straight weeks reviewing discs with nautical themes in their packaging and not a sea shanty to be found [this is October, 2007]. These are strange days, indeed. Last week, Anna’s Ghost just seemed to like old-looking stuff, and the schooner (or some other big sailboat—I’m no boat buff) on their disc fit the bill. This week, By Blood Alone have “A Mediterranean Brigantine Drifting onto a Rock Coast in a Storm,” by none other than Willem van de Velde, the Younger, gracing the cover of their Seas of Blood. The painting and record both are fairly epic.
Just as you’d be seriously remiss in skipping a chance to see van de Velde II at the Rijksmuseum during a jaunt through Amsterdam, so too should you take the opportunity to take a listen to By Blood Alone’s first full-length disc, an eight-track work spanning 50 minutes that offers a polished and original sound, mixing elements of progressive rock, goth, classical and pop-rock to create a listenable and engaging series of seascapes.
BBA get much of their goth reputation from their look and lyrical themes, trading, too, on Cruella’s languid and fantastical delivery to lend a Romantic (like the artistic movement) feel to everything they do. They are neither as grim and mechanical as Skinny Puppy, however, nor as monotone and humorless as Depeche Mode’s darker days. Instead, they are often a little bit catchy, easy to sing along to, and when they do get aggressive and dark, it’s more in a Rush way than anything else.
They’ll even teach you a thing or two. Their opening “Serpentarius” gets out of the gate very prog, indeed, with John Graveside’s pin-point guitar tightly coordinated with the rhythm section of Jack Doran on bass and Runtt on drums. A 7:30-long ode to the mythical man who invented medical practice, and was thusly struck down by Zeus for depriving Hades of his residents, the song offers Cruella initially querying, “What’s the 13th sign?,” an allusion to the constellation Ophiuchus, Greek for Serpentarius, discovered by Ptolemy in the 2nd century as one of 13 constellations through which the sun travels. The other 12 are astrological signs, but Ophiuchus was passed by in the mathematical desire for 12 to divide nicely into 360.
A keyboard line like a theramin from Jenny Williamson keeps the vibe mystical before the first major instrumental break, where layers of guitars repeat riffs in chord progressions. While progressive as a genre-describer can often just mean nerdy guys into mathematical music and lots of black, By Blood Alone hold true to prog’s basic ideal, also exemplified locally by the likes of Dreadnaught, to actually push contemporary music forward, and their mix of rhythms, keys, and sound levels is always intriguing.
(One other interesting note about Serpentarius: It was the supernova that appeared inside its boundaries in 1604 that Galileo used to show that Aristotle was a dummy with that whole changeless-heavens argument. How’s that for progressive?)
The best thing about this disc is the variety of approaches the band employ, from the simple piano-and-Cruella opening to “Undead Friend” to the heavy grind of “Lovely Lies,” which quickly gives way to dream-like keyboards and Cruella turning singer/songwriter: “I told you once before, that I don’t want your love/ Don’t hold me back, and then you fall to your knees/ Begging me please to take you back into my heart.”
Here, you always get your come-uppance. “Friend” flows into a quick waltz, after a couple of minutes where you wonder whether you might have slipped in the Les Mis soundtrack. The rhythm is held in the piano and cymbals while the keyboards lay down a string section that introduces a third movement with a minor-key fallout straight from the jazz songbook before the song finishes like a big ‘80s ballad. Just when you thought “Lovely Lies” was your standard break-up tune, Cruella steps it up a notch: “I hate you, despise you, just leave me alone.”
Like Camera Obscura’s Tracyanne Campbell, though not as high in the register, Cruella is consistently able to get dark and moody with her content without being dark and moody with her delivery. She and the songwriting combine to make seven-minute-plus tunes—say, “Nidhogg,” about the mythical Norse dragon known alternately as the tearer of corpses and the malice striker as it gnaws at the tree of life—seem almost like they end too soon. And they have further foresight not to put too many tracks on the disc or ask too much of their audience.
The final cut, “Little Lady Lillit” is a sub-three-minute piece of dessert after seven main courses. With a piano like a music box, Cruella triples her vocals into a schoolyard chant about a girl who’s “evil through and through”; to “wreck and crumble, this is what she’d do.” It’s evil in a fun way, and it ends with a purposefully sour note and an infectious giggle.
Who says goths don’t know how to have fun?