"Beauty of whatever kind in its supreme development invariably excites the sensitive soul to tears. Melancholy is thus the most legitimate of all the poetical tones"
To expand (again) on David Teledu's idea, the M1 could be thought of as the ley line that runs up and down the country channelling energy from the various musical nodes upon it. One of these is the pleasant market town of Market Harborough which is home to the band Black Carrot. A three piece of drums, acoustic bass and keyboard/saxes/guitar, they inhabit a remarkably versatile area of performance that can take in the extremes but is always centred on rhythm – which makes them both satisfyingly experimental due to their almost total improvisationary approach and also potentially accessible to a wider audience. (As proved by their well-received set at the Charlotte in Leicester a few weeks back, supporting the Fall).
Recently they have been doing live shows with Nigel Parkin fronting the band on several literary conceptual performances based on the writings of Edgar Allan Poe and Franz Kafka. (Two writers who go together very well, thinking about it...). Some of this has been translated to the two cd's I am reviewing here: 'Essays in Mutilation and Despair' subtitled: 'An improvised exploration of the tales of Edgar Allan Poe,' which offers a reading of 'The Raven' and a long improvisation on 'The Pit and the Pendulum.' And 'The Mariners' Rest,' which is totally improvised.
A fast walking acoustic bass and then Nigel Parkin enters: 'Once,' stop for a beat or two then resume: 'Upon a midnight dreary.' The pause signals the manner in which he will stretch the poem out of its usual rhythmic straitjacket, as he continues to declaim 'The Raven' and minimal pattering percussion spreads out behind him. Poe benefits from close attention to rhythm – 'The Raven' is too well known, to the extent that it is too easy to 'tum ti tum' it – its rhythm can adhere too closely to its alleged conception – almost a mathematical proposition according to EAP. This poem is tailor-made for hamming it up – or parody - yet Nigel's voice is pitched perfectly – straight English, with no attempts at American nuances or Vincent Price-isms. (Given that Poe is supposed to have appropriated the figure of the raven from Dicken's 'Barnaby Rudge,' an interesting return?) Theatrical, yes – the 'Raven' demands a certain degree of performative brio – but locked skilfully into the music that understatedly and smoothly bears the voice along. At a fast pace... which benefits the poem. Too easy to intone mournfully... Parkin delivers at different speeds within that fast rhythm – in places spitting the words out in long streams, in others dragging back a little on the beat – almost an echo of Lester Young... A gleefully dark performance by Parkin that relishes the verbal opulence of Poe's words while drawing on a certain ambiguity between their intrinsic dark melancholy and a necessary performative distance that is tinged with humour.
'The Raven' fades out over that insistent bass - which fades back in for track two, a recitation of 'The Pit and the Pendulum.' This is a freer reading – prose being obviously more amenable to vocal gymnastic extemporising than the fixed rhyme – and text - of the poem. The music is more programmatic – not overly so but subtly rising to emulate and shadow the dark, claustrophobic horrors of the story. Scrawling sax, bass descending in bowed steps, drums beating distant heart-beat tom tom tattos. The music is given plenty of space, with the voice dropping out frequently, allowing the story to breathe - paradoxically, given the theme of enclosure (although there is plenty of dark, unknown space in the story). If you know the text , you become aware of the skilful way that Parkin is improvising – keeping the essence of darkness and imprisonment and claustrophobic horror while taking it to other places – a paraphrasal eliding of the original theme – and cutting the 'happy' ending, which always seems tacked on and contrived, to face up to the existential abyss of 'The Pit... the Pit...'. His performance brings an emotional unity to the story that the original undercuts in its last sentences with the sudden rescue: 'An outstretched arm caught my own as I fell, fainting, into the abyss. It was that of General Lasalle. The French army had entered Toledo. The Inquisition was in the hands of its enemies.' No such escape here...
'The Mariner's Rest' could be an adaption of a story or film – except that it is entirely improvised. The motifs are familiar – echoes of John Carpenter's masterly horror film 'The Fog,' maybe, with more than a glance backwards at classics such as 'The Ancient Mariner,' in the sense of the listener being buttonholed and told a story about a dreadful set of events following a shipwreck by a guilt-ridden survivor of the ensuing horrors – and the resonance in both titles: 'Mariner.' It commences with scraped guitar chords and what sounds like a chain being rattled, joined by bass and ethereal drums. Long held high notes – then voice: 'Midnight.' Parkin proceeds to set the scene – a group of drinkers over a fresh bottle of whiskey in a locked tavern looking out over the sea – waiting. Whispering: 'Nobody wanted to think about what lay there. A year ago when the Alice had sunk – taking its whole crew with it.' (An interesting change of gender – 'it' rather than 'her'). On this anniversary of the disaster, there is a sense of impending doom fuelled by the guilt of the townspeople who perhaps could have saved the crew if they had listened to the alarm raised (admittedly by a lunatic). At midnight, the dead seamen come back and disembark from their ship, watched by their terrified comrades in the tavern as they proceed down to the town. Then they return as dawn approaches '... this time, smiling, coral mouthed weed-encrusted smiles... barnacles and tiny sea creatures hanging from their mouths.'
The fearful watchers in the 'Mariner's Rest' observe the dead departing into a rising mist that comes off the sea and covers the town – and drowns the town's population: 'The whole town, as one, screaming!' Echoed by a squalling guitar over insistent bass and four on the floor drums. The screams of the dying – drowning in a horrific echo on dry land of the fate of the ship's crew in the sea. The drinkers are spared and after the mist recedes rush out of the Mariner's Rest to find the population of the town – all dead. Traces of water and seaweed everywhere – as if a ghostly wave had swept over the town.
They are left as witnesses to the revenge of the drowned.
The bass seems slightly less to the fore than on the Poe cd but acts again as a pivot for the other instruments. Guitar – sparse punctuations in the main – glissandos, splintered chords, fragments and occasional longer notes which sound like they were e-bowed – or bowed. The drums, spartan but effective, setting up free falling rhythms alternating with more explicitly stated ones which ratchet up the tension. Listen especially to the section about twenty minutes in: a descending guitar figure that starts quietly behind the voice slowly increases in volume when Parkin stops and the band build on this and repeat a four bar section over and over until he re-enters: 'Dark figures standing still as death, silent as the grave as the boat docked in the harbour.'
All a bit grand guignol (as is the Poe cd) – but surprisingly effective. The programmatic elements are kept spare – creakings and scrapings, for example, are not overdone. The piece breathes easily as the band set up rhythms and build successions of crescendos to punctuate the unfolding horror of the narrative, dropping out in places to leave Parkin solo. A masterful performance – the tale told with an ease that disguises the fact that it is improvised. Parkin's skills as a storyteller are at full stretch here, again demonstrating his range of nuance and quick-witted delivery.
The main elements of Black Carrot's style with Parkin are fairly recognisable on both cd's: sparse musical settings over which his rich voice resounds to good effect, a wide flexibilty of vocal nuance on display. He is the featured soloist, as it were, the band playing well within themselves to allow his voice to deliver a poem, an improvisation on a theme by Poe – and a totally free improvisation – 'The Mariner's Rest,' which cleverly explores various ghost/horror story archetypes.
The band display a high degree of inventiveness in extemporising without stepping on each other or self-indulgently sprawling to interrupt the balance of the instrumentation or the flow of the narrative. The rhythms they employ always allow for a rooting and accessibility – yet are subtle and varied, skilfully exploring the interface between rock and jazz that is one of their trademarks. Their use of silence as well is exemplary, punctuating and allowing the music and voice to breathe. If I had one criticism it would be that I would like to have heard a little more of the band – but I can see that there is a delicate balance to be preserved here between vocal and musical narrative – the temptation to ham it up with more obvious emulations of sound effects would be a dangerous one to resist. Maybe in this case – less is more. Dark stuff – delivered with great skill and wit – and humour. The integration of voice and music to explore existing narratives within an improvisatory framework – and to create new ones - is fascinating. And unique.
To order these cd's and for info on the band, go here...