Tuesday, 24 December 2013

Internal Investigation #2: The Civil Dead - Bird Bones (album review)

The Civil Dead first came to my attention when I was writing for the now suddenly dearly departed Temple of Perdition blog.  I was given a choice of five or ten albums to review and I chose this one.  You can read the review right here.  I think something about the sprawling, cinematic and highly suggestive soundscapes of the album, combined with a structured sensibility toward songwriting brought out the best in me as a writer, or maybe it brought out the most pretentious in me, I don't know.  Anyway, The Civil Dead is a one-man band out of Vancouver, BC and that "one-man", Christopher Langer, volunteered to say a few words about the first album released under The Civil Dead moniker, 'Bird Bones', when I put out an open submission call for a(n almost certainly short-lived) series of articles labelled 'Internal Investigations'.  The concept behind the Internal Investigations idea was to have bands review their own records in earnest.  If nothing else I hoped that it would give Paranoid readers a glimpse into just how much thought, care, heart and passion these musicians put into their records.  I wanted this series to show another side of music, as not just art, but as pieces of human beings.  I hoped this series to implicitly say that music is not just product, not just commodity.  Christopher and Ian (from Internal Investigations # 1) have pretty much done just that.  When I got this article back from Christopher I was amazed.  Here was a thorough review, alright!  Hell, the damn thing even had end notes!  I'd like to thank Christopher (and Ian) for doing this.  Any other bands or musicians who are interested in doing an Internal Investigation, you can get in touch with me at me email address (lucaswilliamklaukien @ gmail . com) or leave a message on the PH facebook page.  Christopher Langer's review of The Civil Dead's 'Bird Bones' album begins now:

This is my third attempt to write a reflection on The Civil Dead’s Bird Bones for The Paranoid Music Blog. I keep trying to get the bones of the thing and, so far, I keep chewing on the gristle. So this time around I’ll try to skip rambling screeds, flowery language, and self-effacement and just get to the heart of the thing.

Bird Bones began in Toronto in 2010. After a decade of recording I’d just started playing the odd coffee house. I had been doing some duet covers (1) with a woman with a really nice voice (2) and decided to write some songs for her. I don’t think she was ever that interested in what I came up with, and everything was too rough to really make anything of it at the time. I’m interested in minutiae and marginal, forgotten narratives. And westerns. So I want to hear about the black cowboys (there were loads), the sex workers, the Chinese railway workers - all who live and die in the shadow of some blunt, simple hero of a horseman. Long story short, I don’t think she wanted to sing from the perspective of some whorehouse gal. Before long, I’d moved back home to the West Coast and nothing came of the band that I was hoping to call Bird Bones.

A few months later, I was unemployed, struggling to finish a degree (3) and hadn’t spent much time thinking about my project. I’d started up a proto-punk band (4), but I couldn’t get everyone to play as dirty as I wanted. Vancouver is a town filled with sugary pop bands and death metal with little in between. I just wanted to play NYC junkie punk like Johnny Thunders (5) or Television (6), figuring my voice suited that sound. But it stopped being fun pretty quick, and I was more about anger and pain and depression than fun anyways. More and More I wanted to play music like Earth (7), Boris (8), Monarch! (9), Asva (10), and Nadja (11). Bleak, slow, experimental god-damned rock music. Over the course of 2011, I tracked the instruments myself, with the exception of the flute part on the opening track. I’d hoped to find another female vocalist but, after some false starts and one successful recording session, figured that if I wanted to finish the Bird Bones album, I had to use my own voice. I hope it comes across more haunting and despaired than Kermit the Frog. My British wife says West Coast folks all sound like Muppets.

So, that being said, I’m putting Bird Bones on for the first time in a good long while and thought it might help me reflect as it plays (12). I never swore to love or protect my work like it was a child, and I imagine I fall into the category of musician who is harder on themselves than they need be. At times while recording I probably hated this album, truth be told. While I am happy that it exists, I think I am free to discuss its shortcomings as well as its strengths. So let’s get on with it.

1. The Wild Wind I (Death)
Low fidelity is this album’s cage. While the hazy western fuzz I aimed for doesn’t really need the dynamic mix of say, Fleetwood Mac’s Rumors, I have to admit that everything is a bit more monochromatic and muddy than I wish it was. Despite this, I think I did a good job with the dynamics of “The Wild Wind I (Death)”. There are a good number of peaks and valleys that were intended to invoke some isolated death dream. While the song starts with a woman witnessing the murder of a man, it ends with her dissociative mid-coitus - “I felt your size inside of me … but all I heard was the wild wind…”. I think that, while writing this, I was beginning to think more and more on how women aren’t allowed to be actors in society - how they are still expected to exist behind various walls and cannot occupy those spaces claimed by men, even when occupying spaces of violence and sex. It’s interesting that, despite this, the song was read as a man’s account of events rather than a woman’s in one print review. Maybe the heaviness of the song distracts from the lyrics, or maybe the lyrics aren’t clear enough in the mix. Maybe the reviewer was lazy or not listening hard enough. Whatever the case, I think that this was the ideal track to start Bird Bones off on. It was the first conceived and starts with the most dramatic kick, influenced heavily by the Earth’s Angels of Darkness, Demons of Light and Neil Young’s work on the Dead Man soundtrack. Asva’s Futurists Against the Ocean (13) too, although it’s less apparent, and an amazing defunct band Mythical Beast (14). Slow burner stuff.

2. Wolfbed
I think this was the last track recorded. It’s pastiche, gluing a drone bit to a western doom riff to something much more Phil Elverum-ish. If you are listening to Bird Bones as a record that builds exclusively on popular music structures, it might come off as lazy, but doom fans can probably deal with a track with three movements. I wish I’d stretched the intro out longer and developed the organ part more. I hope that, as a quiet, droning bit, it draws the listener in so that the ensuing second part, which kicks in at 2:17, is a bit jarring. Along with the first track, this section continues to owe most things to Earth and Dead Man. I think it would have been great if this part of the song had a horn section. If anyone disputes the ‘heavy cred’ of this album, the messy indie rock sort of ending to “Wolfbed” is probably a good place to start. However, to me the heaviness of mood here and the way I used the guitars to punctuate and build around a constant feeble glockenspiel pulse - I feel that it’s more suitable to the oceans and mountains where I’m from than some far away Scandinavian forest (where all the trees wear corpsepaint and spiked arm guards or whatever). I actually thought about not including this song because of the lyrics. I wanted to stick with a strict narrative approach to songwriting, but this track ends up a bit more impressionistic - it’s vaguely about something inside yourself growing fangs, growing monstrous but also in some way better - but it’s sort of a bunch of nonsense. However, I’ve loved Phil Elvrum’s band Mt Eerie (15) (nee Microphones (16)) for years, and I think that this was more about trying to capturing the ramshackled emotional spirit of some haunting bands in the Anacortes Island artists. I hope that I did them justice.

3. Mountain Arms
When I think back on this album, “Mountain Arms” stands out. It’s feel is more upbeat than the rest of the collection and as ramshackled as it gets. Too many guitars piled on top of each other, too much fuzz, but at the same time, I think it’s a little break from the whole ‘dying alone in the woods’ vibe of the rest of the album. I like the the driving 4/4 stomp going on, and I hope people find the messiness endearing - if they don’t they probably haven’t gotten to this track anyways. I wonder if I would have, if I was just coming across this album on Bandcamp? I think I’d give it a few listens. I hope I would. Lyrically, this one goes back to stories about women, although this gal’s not walled off from society so much as she’s had enough for one lifetime and is ready to shoot the next man who gets in her way. I was originally hoping I would be re-recording this album with higher fidelity and planned on getting some stoner friends (17) from out East to contribute vocals. Next time. I still enjoy this one and can really hear the old school Flaming Lips and Dinosaur Jr influences coming through - more hits to my heavy cred, huh?

4. Bird Bones
This track owes much to Toronto/Berlin ‘doomgaze’ group Nadja. Their cover album When I See The Sun Always Shines On My TV shows how well their walls of drone can suit pop songs (caveat: ‘pop’ includes Slayer). Additionally, I was feeling the whole Leonard Cohen, Nick Cave school of songwriting. Because I was writing mainly about death and isolation I thought a bit of comedic scorn like Cohen does so well would work well alongside all the death. I hope it mitigates the sometimes melodramatic quality of my singing voice. So I suppose that’s what I’ve taken from Mr. Cohen. Throw the acid folky introduction into the mix and that’s Bird Bones, although one reviewer thought The Civil Dead sounded like Swans and I’ll happily accept that as a reference point as well. Towards the end of recording the album I revisited this track and added some gutteral backing vocals. While they’re buried in the mix and drenched in reverb, you can hear them if you listen. I was getting annoyed with hearing my voice over and over. I’ll admit that it isn’t the nicest voice. It’s a bit nasal and sometimes sounds like some NYC punk brat from the 70s (or worse, some Cali punk brat from the 90s). I felt that the male/female vocals on “The Wild Wind” added a strong dynamic, I thought I’d try out a clean/growled vocal dynamic. I think it adds a lot to this track. In the very least, I hope you don’t find them laughable. In some ways this is my favorite track of the bunch.

5. The Sister Singers In the Woods
When I finished Bird Bones it had four tracks, along with a good number of instrumentals that I had never recorded vocals onto for one reason or another. It felt fraudulent to call a collection of four songs an ‘album’ and I quite liked this instrumental. Originally, I was already thinking it would be a track on a second Civil Dead album but, as I tracked more and more on top of my original guitar recordings, I began to miss the starkness of recordings of just guitar. So I thought I’d preserve this as simply a guitar track. The Civil Dead is (in my mind) about guitar riffs first, narrative songwriting second, and heavy fuzz and drones third, so what better way to end and pay tribute to the album’s influences than a guitar composition. Sitting here right now in some sunny office (I’m a temp worker, don’t get too excited) I have to say that this is my favorite track. I always want to explore pain, depression, death - the dark stuff - but in the end I love the pretty, peaceful side of life. I think we all do - hell, I assume Varg Vikerness isn’t married with three children because parenthood is satanic or whatever - I bet he owns a kitten. Anyhow, I think the “The Sister Singers” is as tranquil as I could make something at the time. Maybe I’ll outdo it next time.

So that’s the album and a sort of director’s commentary of it. I’m happy it’s ‘alive,’ and I’m a little bit proud that (in my mind) it still holds up well. After another year of pestering blogs to plug Bird Bones, I barely coughed up a follow up EP at the beginning of 2013 and was done with the project for a while, but the Winter’s coming around again and there’s almost enough new material for a second album. The main thing holding it back right now is that I am getting sick of lo-fi bedroom recording. For album 2 I can’t avoid the horns where horns are needed and I need to get in touch with a cellist and some classier musicians for certain things I want to do. So it won’t be as easy as it was with Bird Bones. I know that, however Bird Bones worked, it won’t work that way again.

Thanks for listening.

End notes:
1. Soulsavers - Spiritual (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=w8Yl8_is-gU)
2. Kira May - Never Broke A Bone (http://kiramay.bandcamp.com/)
3. I know, academia doesn’t have much doom cred. If it makes you feel better, these days I’m a temp at a university surrounded by radioactive material and rat droppings.
4. Murder Castle (http://murdercastle.bandcamp.com/)
5. Johnny Thunders - You Can’t Put Your Arms Around A Memory (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TknY89kECq0)
6. Television - Prove It (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OULLiXkwVck)
7. Earth - Old Black (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Lb-3eBlv_qE)
8. Boris - Feedbacker LP (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YsKgltFHIEY)
9. Monarach! - Omens LP (http://musicfearsatan.bandcamp.com/album/monarch-omens-lp)
10. Some Asva LP (http://philippepetitamusicaltravel-agent.bandcamp.com/album/asva-philippe-petit)
11. Nadja - When I See… LP - (http://nadja.bandcamp.com/album/when-i-see-the-sun-always-shines-on-tv)
12. A note on the 3rd draft: At this point, I am listening to Yob instead of my album.
13. Asva - Kill the Dog … (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qf3Sp3fFyJo)
14. Mythical Beasts - Black Walls (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=724zCDuQTG8)
15. Mt Eerie - My Heart is Not At Peace (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AYnp5cby1XE)
16. Microphones - Moon (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bb2mAJbH5AU)
17. Tokyo Sex Whale (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KNeg3bCXotQ)

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