Angelus means “Angel” in Latin, but indie-rockers The Angelus apply more to the terrifying, battle-ready archangel idea than the calming, peaceful messenger motif that is common in our culture. I’m not often scared by music, but the pervasive sense of dread and woe that runs through On a Dark & Barren Land creates some profoundly disorienting and distressing moments.
Emil Rapstine, the songwriter behind The Angelus, is a master of mood: using nothing more than harmonized voices, he can conjure up a profound sense of discomfort (“Let Me Be Gone,” “All Is Well,” where nothing sounds well at all). Add in a tasteful restraint on the arrangements of these dark, gritty dirges, and you’ve got an album that will stick with the listener long after the run time. “Turned To Stone” segues a plodding intro into an indie-rock tune anchored by organ, choir bells, and massively overdriven guitar. Just imagining that should bring up thoughts of The Misfits or Godspeed! You Black Emperor, and it is assuredly more of the latter. “Gone Country” sounds like a doom-thousand The National, while the frantic bass work on “Crimson Shadow” lends an urgency to the tune that jars against the slowed-down guitarwork.
I made the mistake of listening to this last night in the dark by myself, and a sense of dread creeped over me as I read my book. If the goal of all music is emotional connection, The Angelus has succeeded mightily. (Even the album art is darkly fascinating, entering into my best of the year list.) Fans of The Black Heart Processional, darkly atmospheric post-rock, or genuinely creepy music would do well to catch up with On a Dark & Barren Land.
I should have known that a band which calls itself “The Black Heart Procession” would be more than a little bit morbid. Somehow, I was still surprised at the amount of death that crowds into the proceedings of their latest album Six. Even more surprising, though, is how incredibly gorgeous this album is, totally in spite of its subject matter.
Yes, from “Suicide” to “Heaven and Hell” to “When You Finish Me” to “Wasteland,” this is a pretty dark album. If you’re not a fan of Nick Cave, Tom Waits or other macabre artists, this is not going to be your cup of tea. Even with piano and strings leading the way through this lush album, it’s tough to get through if you’re affected by such gloomy notes.
Now, if you enjoy or tolerate moribund musings, this album is absolutely necessary for your collection. This is easily one of the most beautiful and engrossing albums I have heard this year. It’s nearly an hour long, and it holds attention for every second. The low male vocals are smooth and powerful, sucking the listener in. It’s like Tom Waits but without the warbling pitch issues, or Johnny Cash without the bite. It’s enticing. There’s a contrasting high male vocal as well, and that works perfectly in the context of the music.
And in that music, The Black Heart Procession has created a perfect backdrop to the engaging vocals. From the plucky strings and shakers of “All My Steps” to the dark guitar pop of “Witching Stone” to the weeping piano of “When You Finish Me,” the members have created a perfectly flowing album. None of these songs are the same; some have distorted guitar, some replace the guitar with an organ. Acoustic guitar plays lead occasionally. But the mood that Six has stays the same throughout. It is the soundtrack to a pondering walk through a cave of poignant, sad memories. The mourning here is genuine; there is not a drop of saccharine anywhere in this album.
This is not an album of singles; this is a fully-realized album project. The Black Heart Procession has created a masterpiece with this album – there’s just nothing to knock in it. If you are a fan of depressing music, this is a must-buy. You will not regret the purchase, although you may encounter some of your regrets as you listen to this album. It’s the type of album that will cause introspection. Simply astounding.
Stephen Carradini and Lisa Whealy write reviews of instrumental, folk, and singer/songwriter music. We write about those trying to make the next step in their careers and established artists.