London – Perhaps it’s no accident that the acronym of new spin-off band from the UK’s Morton Valence, Black Angel Drifter, is BAD. Not that its eponymously titled debut album is at all bad – far from it – but it is typical of the black humour that MV’s front man Robert “Hacker” Jessett employs. He describes Black Angel Drifter as the geek-lovechild of singing partner Anne Gilpin and himself. Jessett goes on to say that Black Angel Drifter will release one album on Bastard Recordings, play one live show and then cease to exist. Well on this debut showing let’s hope the tongue is still firmly in cheek.
A number of the songs on Black Angel Drifter musically conjure up imagery that is more badlands than Brixton. Yet the urban country territory favoured by parent band Morton Valence on recent albums still underpins everything so that the South London stamping ground of Hacker and Gilpin is never far away. The result is a record where lowlife drifters, gangsters, and gunmen live cheek by jowl with life’s loners, losers, and misfits. Co-written with Johnny Brown of the Band of Holy Joy, Jessett’s “Skylines Change/Genders Blur” provides a darkly dramatic opener with a jumble of ambient noise accompanied by distressed cries leading to reverb-heavy guitar and ominous drums, while the two vocals collide in a twisted frisson: “Nothing else is worth waiting for,” though what I am not entirely sure.
The subject matter of the next song “Black-Eyed Susan,” co-written by David Cameron (poet, not ex-Prime Minister!), continues to evoke an urban landscape; a desolate one, at that, populated by dealers, barflies, a sweaty priest, and the sound of a dominatrix, while musically it tips a cap to Ennio Morricone. After the bluesy death-knell of “Sister Pain,” the stark, sad beauty of the gender blurring love song “The Visit” comes as welcome melodic relief, as well as a reminder of how well the protagonists’ distinctive voices complement each other as they trade verses.
The gothic western element to the album finds its true voice in the form of a portentous reimagining of Bob Dylan’s “The Man in the Long Black Coat,” replete with guitar chords that mimic heavy industry and pedal steel guitar that cries rather than consoles. Coming midway through the album, the song is a literal centrepiece that heralds a mellower second half.
The prison confessional of “If I Could Start Over Again” maintains a neat sense of ambivalence in the refrain: “If I could start on over again, I’m wondering what I’d do.” Like much of Hacker’s output, he is a dab hand in inverting the usual outcomes; in this case, the regrets expressed from behind the prison door are less rehabilitation, and more a case of “I might just do that again.”
The gentler vibe is maintained in the thoughtful “Lead On, Take It Away” – that is until a gloriously drunken brass band strikes up before the song is laid to rest in a coda of fairground music. “Hymn Four” is the most beautiful thing on the album. It’s slow-paced, lavished with pedal steel guitar and harmonica, while showcasing Anne Gilpin’s dreamily whispered tones, which ooze sensuality as much as regret.
Crickets play a big part in the record. Heard in snatches throughout the album, the ambient sound of these critters occupies the first 19 minutes or so on the final track, “24:33,” being a homage to the late John Cage, where silence is replaced by the soft chirp of crickets. Those wishing to save on the expense of a meditation tape are rewarded by a short song, “8am at the Fire Club,” embedded in the track as the crickets finally give way.
All in all, this is a particularly visceral album, where the urban rubs shoulders with the desert. Along the way, the music’s harder edge is informed by its psychedelic and frequent cinematic touches, and then softened by pedal steel guitar and Anne Gilpin’s smoky sweetness. It’s a brave and often challenging listen, yet ultimately very rewarding… if not one to get the party started.
Black Angel Drifter is out now and available to buy on iTunes. Black Angel Drifter plays (its quite possibly) one only show on 8th November at London’s Servant Jazz Quarters. Details are on the band’s Facebook page.
Tony’s great passion in life is music and nothing gives him more pleasure than unearthing good, original new music and championing independent musicians. His association with Best New Bands brings great opportunities for this. He also writes for Consequence of Sound and is a judge for Glastonbury Festival’s Emerging Talent Competition.
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