Thursday, April 09, 2009

Album Review : The Hazards Of Love - The Decemberists****

Colin Meloy has taken as his inspiration for this, the Decemberists fifth full studio album, an album of the same name released by English folk artist Anne Briggs in 1966. To augment the band's own vocals he has brought in Becky Stark from the folk/punk stage show Lavender Diamond, and singer-songwriter Shara Worden who is also known as My Brightest Diamond.

Meloy's cast of characters, Margaret, William, Rake and Queen move through a complex and fantastical story of love, lust and loss on the 17 song opus. There are two large musical variations on a theme, Hazards Of Love itself appears in four parts spread throughout the album, and the wonderfully hypnotic The Wanting Comes In Waves is reprised as well.

I can see Hazards making The Decemberists ever more popular, they shifted 300,000 copies of their previous album The Crane Wife (built around an ancient Japanese folk story) in the States, but at the same time, I can imagine that some of their existing fan base may well be alienated by some of the musical directions that HOL strikes off in.

One potential fan base divider is the awesome six and half minutes of The Wanting Comes In Waves/Repaid, the track begins with some of The Decemberists trademark lightweight quirky folk music, then a minute into the song a big muscular guitar riff bludgeons into the mix with Shara Worden singing over the top in a manner that echoes Clare Torry's vocals on Pink Floyd's The Great Gig In The Sky. I love this track, I think it is the stand out track of the album, but I love both folk and rock equally, people whose delicate indy/folk attuned ears arn't quite used to grungy rock riffs might turn off at this point, but who cares about them, this is great stuff.

After that comes the up tempo and heavy on the beat The Rake's Song with its chanted/shouted refrain of 'All right, all right' driving the song along, and yet more guitars make themselves felt on The Abduction Of Margaret which devolves twice into the sort of riff that would have classic metal fans banging their heads in appreciation.

Meloy explains his new departure into the realms of big guitars thus..."There’s an odd bond between the music of the British folk revival and classic metal, a natural connection between, like, Fairport Convention and Black Sabbath—of course, Sandy Denny from Fairport even sang with Led Zeppelin on ‘The Battle of Evermore.’

I'm with him on that, I love it when talented bands can cross and mix genres to create something that is not easily definable.

The Decemberists have made a brave move in bringing in two extra lead singers on this album, not all that many groups would appreciate outsiders stealing the glory as it were, but the two new voices only add to the creative mix. Also appearing on the album are English folk singer Robyn Hitchcock, Jim James from My Morning Jacket and Rebecca Gates from The Spinanes. Is it going to be possible to take this album out on the road ? Let's hope so, perhaps Meloy should look to Tobias Sammet's Avantasia project and make a tour a veritable showcase of indy / folk / rock vocal talent as Sammet does with the power metal / classic rock icons that pack the stage for Avantasia gigs.

This isn't to say though that HOL is a constant aural treat for metalheads, the album still remains defiantly Decemberists, the odd lyrics and idiosyncratic song structures are still there, and the band still have one foot in the soil of the new British folk movement. Meloy's voice of course remains both a strength and a hindrance, I can imagine that his slightly nasal vocal style may not appeal to the mass market. That said, Hazards Of Love is a skillful and adept concept album, there are numerous gems amidst its 17 tracks and the darkly beautiful lyrics are as always a joy to hear.

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