Wednesday, August 20, 2008

'Red of Tooth and Claw' whets the appetite for the (slightly) morbid audiophile

By Jon Jacobs

March 3, 2008 | The phrase "murder by death" seems a little redundant doesn't it? Let's be honest, murder very nearly always refers to the death of something -- be it a person or a concept -- so why the peculiar inclusion of the murder method modifier? Well, for Indiana's alternative rockers Murder by Death, being peculiar is something of a second nature.

Take for instance the band's 2002 debut release, attractively named Like the Exorcist, But More Breakdancing. The album featured a unique fusion of alternative rock and post-rock worthy instrumentals. This, in conjunction with song titles such as Holy Lord, Shawshank Redemption is Such a Good Movie made it one of the more unusual --and rewarding -- albums of the year.

As the band progressed, they developed a more conceptual approach to music, taking cues and ideas from classical literature to create thematic and applicable albums, even if with the same tongue-in-cheek antics. Their 2005 album, In Bocca al Lupo, is a sonic interpretation to Dante's The Divine Comedy, with each song trailing a person's ventures into each layer of hell.

With their upcoming release, Red of Tooth and Claw -- out Tuesday -- Murder by Death has kept in touch with their conceptual nature, but have taken their music to a new plain. Thematically, the album is, as singer/guitarist Adam Turla said, centered on the concept of "Homer's Odyssey of revenge, only without the honorable character at the center." And it works; and does so on every carnal level.

The album opens with Comin' Home, a nostalgic anthem to lost time, showcasing the same Johnny Cash-esque vocals and psychotic near-country guitar work that you have come to expect from the band. The unique amalgamation of the low, sinister Cello and the brisk guitar work both enthralls you and inexplicably creeps you out at the same time.

The fourth track, as well as first single, Fuego!, showcases the band at their absolute best; driving guitars, intimate vocals, incredulous dynamics and a rhythm section to knock your socks off. The song builds tension until the breaking point and then releases as Turla cries:

"I feel like a ship on dry land, or an island in the sand. Your kiss is cool, despite the heat; you've got my senses beat. If I stay, I won't last long; you've got a hold on me so strong. I hear your song, all I hear is your song."

It is in this fashion that the majority of Tooth and Claw flows, the immediacy level rarely descending below grueling. Though, amazingly enough, the album manages to never overwhelm or lull the listener into desensitization; succeeding in maintaining your attention without demanding it.

Among these rare descents from intensity is the fifth track Theme (for Ennio Morricone), a melodic three-minute instrumental piece, brilliant in its brevity, and alluringly calming in its execution. The band uses this track to flow from the immediacy of Fuego! to the calmness and mild-tempo of A Second Opinion.

The album's true highlight is in the dynamic confessional -- and unsettlingly depressing -- epic-lament The Black Spot. Here we find the droned guitars, bombastic drums and a bittersweet cello creating a glooming darkness that brings scarlet faces to even the most intense metal bands in terms of pure inherent passion.

The track is fronted by Trulo's cathartic and enticing vocals wailing -- no, not in the dashboard confessional way -- with a heart wrenching misery: "You can barely live on, make the foundation strong. But soon the cracks start to show. You can barely live on, as best as you can. But sooner or later it's gonna show."

As with all of Murder By Death's albums, Red of Tooth and Claw creates intense, yet fragile tales of loss and forlorn, all the while appealing to hard-core audiophile's demands for musical intricacy. The album flows with an intrinsic majesty usually reserved for bands with 20 years of experience instead of one with only six. Red of Tooth and Claw is not only Murder By Death's best album, but it could be the best release, thus far, of 2008.

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