What’s to like?
Very enjoyable third album from electronic folk multi-instrumentalist duo The Blackheart Orchestra, who mix vintage and modern instruments with a distinctive singing voice.
The low down
I first encountered The Blackheart Orchestra as the support act for a gig by prog rock band Lifesigns. I was intrigued by the band’s choice of name and wandered into the cramped venue wondering what array of instruments would greet me.
To my surprise, the instrumentation was minimal, a small keyboard stack and a couple of guitars. But then if I’d done my homework, I’d have realised that the band are essentially a duo, consisting of Chrissy Mostyn and Richard Pilkington. But what also surprised me was how rich a sound they were able to create, just the two of them.
Chrissy handled the vocals, along with acoustic guitar and occasional contributions on the synths, while Richard focussed on the guitars, additional synths and back-up vocals on the choruses. And in the intimate backroom venue, the music still had ample room to breathe and blossom.
The songs were accessible and very melodic, and the use of echo effects gave the impression of a larger “orchestra” of instruments being employed, belying the reality on stage. It said a lot for the quality of the songwriting and Chrissy’s distinctive voice that I quickly tuned into the music, as unfamiliar as it was, rather than marvelling at the novelty of seeing the two performers up front and the temptation to scrutinise every instrument being played.
I came away impressed and helped out by purchasing their album Diving For Roses at the merch desk. The album’s fusion of acoustic and electric instrumentation and Chrissy’s delicate, almost ethereal voice, was a nice souvenir of the gig, and renewed my appreciation of the duo’s ability to write strong songs without the need for overdoing the instruments.
Mesmeranto, the duo’s latest album, hit the streets only a few weeks later, but it’s only now that I’ve gotten round to buying a copy, partly as homework before the duo return to the same venue next month, as part of an impressive number of UK dates to promote the album (25 shows running the breadth of the country over the next few months).
And happily, it’s a terrific album. At first I was a little daunted at the prospect of trying out fourteen songs in one sitting, but the album ebbs and flows so well that it was a total pleasure over the space of an hour. And most importantly, it left me wanting to go back to the beginning and start all over again.
By comparison with the earlier album, Mesmeranto shows that Chrissy and Richard have grown, not only as musicians but as writers and arrangers. This album sounds like a step up in terms of the wider range of instruments employed, which bring added colour and depth to a song-writing process which was already well-established.
The sound mix feels more polished as well, losing a little of the indie feel of the last album, in favour of more layers and a creative use of the space when positioning the vocals and the instruments. (I could swear I almost heard a guitar solo in the background at one point….)
The imaginative positioning of the vocals in the mix works to great effect on tracks like Wolves and I Am, where Chrissy’s voice moves around from front and centre to the wider left and right of the stereo mix, with some possible overdubs to add harmony on the chorus.
There’s also an increased sense of drama across songs like Drown Me Out, with electronic beats driving the rhythm of the song, where previously the musicians would simply have added in some acoustic guitar strumming. In fact, electronica is a more prominent presence across the whole album, compared to previous music, and if Diving For Roses was the sound of bed-sit indie improve, Mesmeranto is the sound of a band being let loose in the studio and tentatively trying out the new toys.
However, the band haven’t strayed from their core template of vocals first and instruments sensitively colouring in the background, to present complete and satisfying songs, so if you’re already familiar with the earlier music this album won’t push you out of the comfort zone. There’s a pleasing mixture of contemplative songs, tales of heartbreak such as Back To Earth and even hints of playfulness on songs like You And I.
The beauty of these songs though, is that they work both as sophisticated compositions on record, and will work equally well in the duo’s stripped down approach for live performance. They don’t overdo the studio effects, so each song will still sound familiar in front of an audience, as the main instruments – voice, acoustic guitar, and looped electronics are still the dominant presence.
Here’s the promo video for the track Violet:
And for all the initial simplicity of the songs on first hearing, repeat listening will reveal more details and colourings that will add to the enjoyment.
You can learn more about The Blackheart Orchestra via their website here, along with details of their imminent UK tour. Well worth checking out.