Christoph F. and the Black Sheep - Heathen Frontiers In Sound [Trilithon Records - 2009]Christoph F. and the Black Sheep have created a passionate but flawed record with "Heathen Frontiers in Sound" (what a great title!). The musical style exhibited here could be described as layered, politically charged folk rock with a strong focus on acoustic textures, resulting in a sort of 'campfire singalong in a revolutionary camp' atmosphere.
The album is steeped in references to revolutionaries of the past (from John Adams to Che Guevara) and a rustic, olde-timey aesthetic. Indeed, sometimes the focus on the past makes the album feel more like a historical re-enactment than a statement about the modern world. Christoph F. and the Black Sheep seem to want to forget that cellphones and computers exist at all. To the credit of the immersive power of the disk, forgetting such things is easy while you're listening to this disk.
This is my first experience with any of these musicians, including the apparently famous Julian Cope. One could say I have been blessed with the chance to evaluate this collection on its own merits. Those relying on the strength of Cope's involvement, however, should note that for the most part, the songs on this record were written solely by one Christoph F.
It's an incredibly preachy record, consistently insulting (oftentimes rather vaguely) democracy, Christianity, and American pop culture. The album's political centerpieces "Gringo Blues", "My Heathen Revolution" and "Talkin' Revolution Blues" (1st, 2nd and 3rd cuts on the album, respectively) exemplify this best. Lyrics such as "The orders come from wall street and Arlington, Virginia / Rubber stamped in Washington with ink that's gonna kill ya" are cleverly put, but reflect an archaic East Coast centric take on American politics. It is difficult to deduce what is meant by such oft-repeated lines as "An army is an army and a gun is still a gun". They're fun to sing along with; some well constructed phrases will stick in your mind, but the message, evidently intended to be the focus of the music, rings hollow and generic. The clearest statement I can glean from the lyrics of this record is that the 'revolution' must be violent rather than democratic.
Few other specifics of the 'revolution' called for throughout the record are discernible. Near the beginning of "Talkin' Revolution Blues", the lyrics are spoken "Here's a tale of revolution that ain't been heard in years". Funny, I feel I hear it several times a year. On the other hand, there's a good John Adams quote worked in there, too.
Singer Christoph F., with his charming thick English accent, possesses a delivery and tone of voice that remains refreshingly original throughout the album, and is difficult to describe. Unfortunately, he often seems not quite up to the task of summoning up the energy required to properly express the aggression of his heavy-handed lyrics. He seems afraid to shout (not very punk of him), but he shines on the album's quieter moments. When he intones "I never write slow loves songs..." at the beginning of the ballad of the same name, you believe him. He proceeds to dedicate the song to mother Earth. The song is beautiful, and a highlight. "Black Sheep Blues" and "Brother Motherfucker", while not really 'love songs', continue in this melancholic vein to magnificent effect.
Yes, luckily, during the second half of the album, much of the bravado and anger melts away in favor of something more personal. These songs may soften the aforementioned political message but strength the album as a whole, lending it welcome diversity. Christoph F. begins to sing frequently about his deep nostalgia for his apparent home country of England, even interrupting the momentum of "Talkin' Revolution" for a lengthy verse beginning with "These English towns, they are the best". When he quietly sings "English doesn't love me. Not like she used to do..." on "Black Sheep Blues", he sounds on the verge of tears. It's a powerful moment.
The layered production of the instruments is very low budget, but very well done. One can imagine these reverberant guitars sounding through misty hills. Some quite mystic synth work, sounding somewhere between an organ and a cheap melodica most of the time, lends some spiritual flavor to a record that insists "There is no God around us". The bass and guitar work is sloppy but deeply emotive. Many of the albums best moments are instrumental, such as the mostly improvisatory intro to "I Never Write Slow Love Songs" and the instrumental first half of the closer "Heathen Frontiers in Sound".
The only miss on the second half of the album is "Crucifiction Blues", a simple song full of awkward rhymes like "If he's the son of God / Then God's an evil sod" and "You're heading for destruction based on nothing but a prayer / You're heading for extinction and I don't fucking care". They're sung just as awkwardly as they're written. The song fails to redeem itself with a memorable melody.
Basically, anyone who has not yet tired of generic punk rock lyrical sentiment will likely find little wrong with this record aside from a slight lack of vitriol during the more upbeat numbers. For the rest of us, this is still an enjoyable disk. There are songs here I'd be happy to hear time and time again (mostly those less politically charged), and songs that have already begun to grate on me. It's a solid 3/5. I'm glad I heard it.Josh Landry