By Blood Alone: Seas of Blood

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?

6gig: Mind Over Mind

Over and above

Never mind the bollocks, here’s 6gig

Start with the band’s name: it should say something about the group, define them without putting them in an unfortunately small box. The Beatles had a great name when they were four mop-topped lads from Liverpool, but was The White Album really recorded by “The Beatles”? Rage Against the Machine? I’ve always thought that name put them in a very tight space, indeed. Could that band ever write a decent ballad and not have it sound silly?

With 6gig, we have a moniker that says precision, calculation, speed, and intelligence and rings with frontman Walt Craven’s self-depreciating story about how he’s a computer geek and just sort of came up with it. (It also gave us an idea in the office: What if you named a band 6gig, then played only six gigs and quit?)

But 6gig’s meaning provides a more-than-apt description for their music: tight, written out to the smallest beep and whir, with quick riffs and rhythms put together in ways that you haven’t heard before, but reserved and humble enough to keep them from sounding like Dream Theater or math rock. Plus, they’re a band whose professionalism in the studio is the stuff of local legend, a band whose first take is often their last.

But what about Craven’s impassioned vocals, alternately sung and screamed? Okay, so computers and melody may not make for a ready free association, but there is a lyrical quality to 6gig’s two syllables, sibilant and guttural, the “x” and “g” working together like light and heavy elements to form a willing compound.

6gig are what a fully realized band looks like. That sounds a bit like a hypothesis, and it fits them — a scientific method for their scientific musical creation. And, finally, the proof is readily available now that you can say the same about their sophomore full-length release, Mind over Mind (how’s that for emphasizing the cerebral?). There’s heart there, too, of course — beating through the layers of steel and cable that have been erected to protect it.

And this aesthetic pervades everything the band does. The packaging for the new album is brilliant, reds and blues mirroring grays and metallics, meshing Craven’s technical (CAD training?) designs with Bob Smyth’s organic forms, the schematics just abstract enough to suggest living organisms. Every lyric is there, and there are notations above and beyond the standard to let the reader (cover band?) know just which verse repeats when, and which codas are extended or reprised. Plus, look at the thank yous: They’re all-encompassing, equally full of family, friends, and industry types who have helped them along the way — but they’re in alphabetical order!

All of this is to say that they couldn’t have done better than Matt Wallace (Faith No More, most famously) as producer, the last cog in any band’s musical machine. He has taken this grand vision of a technical musical masterpiece and crafted it expertly. The opening track, “Space Suit,” more prelude than introduction, is a whir of pneumatic pumps and gadgets, Craven’s voice a distant jumble of barely comprehensible phrases. This is an album, one where nothing is tossed off, and everything is wedded to the purpose. Again, this “Space Suit” theme surprisingly reappears for 14 seconds between tracks six and seven, the CD player counting solemnly down in the negative like a rocket bracing for liftoff.

But what is all this technical wizardry masking? Real passion — as evidenced on the band’s first single and the first song here, “Whose Side Are You On?” Wallace here, as on much of the album, gives Craven personality by keeping his vocals high in the mix, immediate and captivating. The bass line from Weave is dark and methodical. Climbing guitar lines go up and down stairs while multi-tracked background vocals arc in and out of the mix. The anger is palpable: “I heard what you did, it crept under my skin/ The things that you do disgust me.”

It’s a recurring theme, this anger.

Rock and roll (and its increasingly heavier musical children) has always been the uplifter/reflection of disaffected youth, of course, and those that eschew pop eventually come back around to it by embracing that inner societal revulsion that most intelligent music fans can’t help but harbor toward a world where the Backstreet Boys are rich and famous and classical musicians are forced to pay orchestras to perform their compositions.

Want to rebel against your folks/school/government by finding an empathetic voice? Well, why don’t you take Chuck Berry, Elvis Presley, the Rolling Stones, the Sex Pistols, Iron Maiden, Green Day, or Marilyn Manson for a spin? That usually works pretty good. It’s so loud! So shocking! And just look at them!

Lately, however, bands like Korn and Slipknot have turned this back upon itself, and made the condition of today’s youth their rallying cry and pennant, taking experiences of broken homes and battered mothers and turning them into platinum records. This isn’t just teen angst, this is a reflection of the truly tattered edges of a society that often seems to treat its most valuable resource as disposable income.

Truth be told, however, I’ve never bought the sentiment of these bands for a second. Maybe these emotions were heartfelt once, but the labels so marketed and embraced the ethic that it soon became nothing more than a way to sell records. How many videos do I have to watch where a kid in a soiled T-shirt and a bad haircut watches as his drunken father knocks around his poor, wailing mother? Isn’t that video’s appearance on MTV the height of cynicism?

6gig, however, show here that teen angst can still be done well, while embracing the contemporary tragedies that no other era of rock and roll has ever really imagined. The grunge kids were troubled, sure, and Nevermind and Ten contained brutal images, but it all felt so suburban and narrative, the overall question being asked something along the lines of “Why me?”

With Mind over Mind, however, the question is more like, “What the fuck is wrong with you people?”

“Proud,” for example, asks the question through irony. Both the rocking, singalong cadence and the content of the chorus are jarring.

Thank you/ For lying to my face/ For wasting all my time/ For being drunk again.

Thank you/ For making my mom cry/ For screaming in my face/ For everything you did to us.

I’m so proud of you.

There is a seriousness here borne out by the irony, a resiliency born of distress and adversity overcome. The bridge is a quiet rehearsal of prose poetry over background drums (superb throughout from the late Dave Rankin, though Jason Stewart is now wholly ensconced with the band) and a strummed guitar. The bass entry is cool and melodic, up, up, down, like hopes and dreams.

“Deadbeat” is another ode to “ocean-size letdown,” but personal enough to avoid the cliché. Is it clear that a generation of fathers have abandoned their duty like never before? Yes, by now, quite. But what makes this ring true are the “after-shave smells,” “a telephone call,” “no more baked-bean fat,” “laying out on the grass.”

“Can you bear the thought of losing the love of your family?” 6gig are clearly incredulous that some people all too easily can.

But there’s that resiliency again, undeniable. “Start Again” makes it clear that “I thought about giving in,” but “you cannot make my mind up . . . I’ll start again.” Ending with a blinding guitar solo from Steve Marquis (a rare spot of individual-instrument emphasis), the departure from 6gig’s signature guitar sound of a low chunk tied with a screaming, high punctuation is a notice that the band isn’t afraid to surprise you.

They are, in the end, “Free,” and “I’ll never go back again/ And it’s the only way that I wanna be.” Along with the chorus to “Words,” which might be the best Craven has ever sounded on record, this is a statement that should not be regarded lightly. 6gig know exactly what they want to do, how to do it, and their vision has been realized.

Hook up, plug in, and take notice.