Blood & Banjos - Blood & Banjos - (7.5/10)
Published on November 6, 2014
Genre:Folk / Metal / Crossover
One hundred deaths. Five banjo strings.
No longer part of the soundtrack to moonshine, missing teeth and canoe trips ending in murder most foul, the banjo has been clawing its way out of its Southern niche ever since the Grammy Award-winning (and very banjo-friendly) soundtrack of the 2000 film O Brother, Where Art Thou? re-introduced the instrument to a whole new generation. The presence of the banjo in rock isn’t an entirely new phenomenon, though—everyone from Led Zeppelin to Guns ‘n’ Roses to Primus experimented with it to some extent—but in recent times the instrument has seen a surge in popularity, particularly with the advent of contemporary Indie/neo-Folk rock bands like Iron & Wine and White Picket Fence, as well as the so-called ‘blackgrass’ subgenre (an amalgamation of traditional bluegrass and metal popularized by Kentucky black metal band Panopticon).
Blood & Banjos is the latest banjo-ified metal (or is that ‘metalized’ banjo?) band to make the rounds – an international collective featuring more than a dozen musicians from the US and Europe who, due to obvious logistical constraints, have never played together and, in some cases, have never even met. Technology has an uncanny way of shrinking the globe however, and so the album was composed via material shared over the Internet and recorded during sessions in New York, Michigan and California. Spearheaded by creator/creative director Mike Lindsey and siblings Dan and Patrick Kwiatkowski, Blood & Banjos’ eponymous debut album is essentially a blackgrass opera of sorts that tells the tale of Abram Stone. A more complete summary of the story can be found on the band’s website but suffice to say it’s a rather grim tale of a God-fearing man (Abram Stone) who, after a visitation from Jesus (or it might’ve been the Devil), sets out to kill his wife (and unborn child) in order to prevent the Apocalypse. Imagine a grizzly mix of Faust, The Omen and Frailty set in what I assume to be the antebellum South, and you’ll have a good idea of the concept behind the album.
The blood of God and Satan… rusting on the strings of my banjo…
It makes for a fascinating prospect on paper but musically-speaking the album doesn’t play out quite as you’d expect. While the metal influence comes through clearly on songs like “Draw Down the Moonshine,” “Judge, Jury & Executioner” and “Kings”—where electric guitars, double-bass drums and rasped vocals take the lead—vast swathes of the album are centred more around an Indie Rock/Folk aesthetic that’s more pop than snap & crackle, if you know what I mean. During some of the more mellow moments traces of Reuben and the Dark and Field Report come to the fore (particularly on the rather uplifting “Anti-Annunciation”), while a track like “Sons of Darkness,” with its falsetto cleans is not far off from modern-day Cynic. The different stylistic elements thus often end up clashing instead of cooperating – perhaps a necessary consequence of the Cross-Atlantic compositional nature of the album. It’s a minor gripe however, especially when considering the erratic flow is supposed to mirror our protagonist’s inner turmoil: pre-visitation Abram is content, plucking his banjo strings and sipping his whiskey; post-visitation/homicidal Abram is a man torn between obedience to God and love for his wife, and, after much blood had been shed and many body parts thrown down a well, reflection leads to rebellion as Abram realizes his life will always be one of blood and banjos.
While the heavier numbers provide the album with the requisite punch and sense of drama (e.g. the very theatrical “Judge, Jury & Executioner,” which features everything from gang shouts to blast beats), the album’s true beauty lies in its more demure numbers. “The Binding” and “Of Burial” are particularly noteworthy in this regard, blending female vocals with banjo, fiddle and poignant piano. It is during these introspective moments that the banjos really shine – tune low, pluck slowly and you get that characteristic twang able to convey a distant sadness, or pick the strings a little faster and you get a wispy, breezy sound (see “Regenesis”). Of course it’s not on the level of Earl Scruggs and it doesn’t need to be. Subtlety over histrionics. I suppose some listeners will be put off by the more overt pop sensibilities of many of these songs—which makes the ‘blackgrass’ label a bit misleading—but ultimately Blood & Banjos is simply a fun listen and clearly the result of a labor of love between musicians spread far and wide. The sequencing is a tad off in places, and I would love to hear a more pronounced metal influence on future works, but for now this album will do the trick quite nicely.
The album will be made available as a pay what you can download via the band’s Bandcamp page on November 18, so be sure to check the site regularly.