Concept Album Corner - 'In Bocca Al Lupo' by Murder By Death
Concept Album Corner – ‘In Bocca Al Lupo’ by Murder By Death
One of the many possible problems in creating Concept Albums, particularly more modern ones, is exactly how broad the concept might be. In some cases, with albums like Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon or Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds’ Murder Ballads, concepts can be universal in scope with songs that are still straightforward and close to that concept (in these cases, existentialism and murder). Some concepts are a bit more difficult to figure out, though, as there might be numerous, inter-related concepts to the whole big ‘concept’. The problem with this is that songs can often deviate from there pre-determine topics, as is the case with albums like the previously reviewed Absolutely Free. Such is the case with the album In Bocca Al Lupo by Murder By Death.
Formed in Bloomington, Indiana, Murder By Death – taking its name from an early mystery/comedy film of the same name – is certainly a band with very few musical boundaries. The range in their influences and their musical styles is debatably limited, but their execution and their passion certainly drives their style forward. Murder By Death is a band that can not only set tone and setting almost instantly with only the first few notes of a song but also give the listener a wide variety of scenarios and scenes to imagine, from a classic Western crime story (which seems to be their major focus for the most part) to a seedy Soho whorehouse to a raucous pirate battle. With this ability, one would believe them to be perfect models for Concept Albums. The band has released two of them, Who Will Survive & What Will Be Left of Them? and In Bocca Al Lupo, which is what we’ll be discussing today.
Lead singer/guitarist Adam Turla, sounding much like a teenage Johnny Cash and Voltaire impersonator, described the album as a series of short stories, each track switching between time and place, revolving around the themes of sin, punishment and redemption, much like Nick Cave’s Murder Ballads mentioned earlier. Turla says that some of the heaviest influences for writing the album included The Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri and Edgar Allen Poe’s Fall of the House of Usher. He was kind enough to explain how said themes are represented in the first five songs of the twelve track album on the website for the band: http://www.murderbydeath.com/discography.php?disc_id=7
For a band heavily influenced by artists like Johnny ‘Man in Black’ Cash, a series of songs about sin and redemption sounds like a match made in heaven. Let’s see how it plays out:
1.) Boy Decide – The low, heavy growl of a guitar and cello, both playing to a waltz-ish beat, launch us into the album as Turla (presumably) serenades his lectures to a nameless youth of the song. In Turla’s explanation of the song, he claims that the narrator is lecturing the youth on his thoughtless actions that will eventually lead him to hell, and that the only way to save himself is to make decisions. Decide who he loves, hates, what he wants, what he is afraid of – so long as he decides, he’ll be able to define himself, supposedly. However, it would seem that Mr. Turla and I would have differing views. In my interpretation, which should be taken with a grain of salt, the narrator isn’t criticizing the youth for his recklessness, but rather for his lack of actions. The boy is intelligent, but only because he watches the rest of the world live it’s life without actually living his. So the narrator advises the boy to finally take action and stop worrying. You’re too old to **** around and too young to die/Time to try a life on for size.
2.) One More Notch – Once again, the scratch and creak of the cello, played in a magnificently gothic fashion by Sarah Balliet, jaggedly eases us into a quick-paced, staccato-heavy love/sin ballad inspired by the Second Level of Hell in Dante’s Inferno. The narrative focuses on a couple in a love affair that shouldn’t be, yet tastes so wonderful to be in, dancing in a ballroom to a storm coming in. At first, they’re swept up by the romance of such a magical situation, but things spiral out of control as the couple catches on fire in hellish retribution for their sins and attempt to desperately save themselves rather than the other. You don’t really even matter/To each other/It’s the rush that you get/When you know you’ve done wrong. I will say, of all the songs in ¾ time throughout the album, it surprises me as to why this one wasn’t placed in the same vein. Methinks a ballroom would be a perfect setting for some waltz music, but perhaps that’s a bit too easy. Turla claims that he doesn’t do easy. I admire that. The song is also the first to introduce the theme of possible redemption, that if one confesses to their sins before its too late, they can start over again, like a snake shedding its skin.
3.) Dead Men and Sinners – Perhaps my favorite album on the piece, a raucous, threatening pirate jig with wonderful use of the cello. Sounds effects clank and clatter like crumbling liquor mugs and rattling bones. The song details a scurvy group of sea thieves under the control of a fearsome Captain who is quickly mutinied and murdered, sent to sleep with the fishes. The crew, however, is quickly rewarded for their betrayal by that great universal foe we all call ‘Karma’, sent to die out at sea in harsh conditions. If one doesn’t really buy into how this ties into the whole theme of sin and punishment, which it easily does, it is nevertheless a fun, fun song. My only complaint is that it is far too short. Two minutes ain’t enough to contain the grandness of pirates, quite frankly.
4.) Brother – Moving back to the band’s more country/rock-oriented style of music, the songs from here on out start to venture into decidedly grayer areas of ‘right and wrong’. This song is exactly what it says on the title, telling the story of two brothers who, despite their great differences, love each other and stick up for one another. One a criminal, the other a good man. As the criminal brother always gets into trouble with the law and has to save his hide, the narrator (the good brother) feels it is his obligation to stick up for his brother despite his actions, not out of goodness, but out of true love. I know there’s better brothers/But you’re the only one that’s mine. Here, Murder By Death shows a side to their music that shows up much more often in the later half of the album. The side that can make conflicted, torn ballads of family love, regret, and hope for redemption, not only for oneself, but for the ones they hold dear. The other songs that go into this territory are considerably softer than ‘Brother’, but it still works with its loud, lively melody.
5.) Dynamite Mine – Moving back into comfortable area with the songs previous to ‘Brother’, ‘Dynamite Mine’ goes back to ¾ time and plucks away on a soft guitar in a dark, earthy cavern. This song is a tale of irony, as a worker in a mine is crushed under a tomb of dirt and steel as dynamite blasts the mines to smithereens…laying the worker right next to the body of a man he killed and buried in the very same mines. The vocals and instruments creep by quietly like shadows on the walls, while the drum beats on and on like marching tune, almost mimicking the overworked digging of a pickaxe into the ground. And at the best of all moments in the middle, the bombs go off and set the song bursting forth into hard-rock and cello solo. Son, cover your ears/Lord how the blast will ring/And when a rumblin’ shakes the walls/you can hear that devil sing.
6.) Organ Grinder – Back in ¾ time and cautionary tales, this seems to go to a seedy 19th Century London alleyway on cobblestone streets and fog-crowded lanes. Trumpet and tuba accompany the strumming of a guitar in fashion of, well, an organ grinder. The tale, I think, focuses on a mischievous young maiden, fooled and enticed by the seeming kindness of a friendly older man who steals her away into…I think child slavery of some form, hopefully in a non-sexual manner. From here on out, Turla hadn’t posted any other information on the narratives of the songs nor their meaning, so this is all completely interpretive. The story seems to be a prototypical fable of ‘Adam, Eve, and the Apple’, enticing a poor victim with kindness, but ultimately bringing a consequence to their actions in exchange for their foolishness.
7.) Sometimes the Line Walks You – Finally, a song made in Soviet-Russia! In all seriousness, though, the song is a clever inversion on the Johnny Cash song ‘I Walk The Line’, a ballad of sobriety, keeping clean, and persevering through the hardships of life without the use of alcohol or drugs, but rather with the help of a loved one. In this inversion, the main character is somebody who is the exact opposite, fighting, drinking, and getting in trouble with the law, without the help of a loved one. Sometimes we can help ourselves out of bad situations and addictions, but sometimes they get the better of us and control our lives. The song is again, very rock-oriented and meaty like a western bar fight, but starts to get the songs to venture into that morally gray area of redemption and sin. Sometimes you walk the line/Sometimes the line walks you.
8.) Raw Deal – The music has considerably toned down from loud, hard rock to soft, echoing guitar pieces and a drum beat that sounds like a funeral march. The songs from here on out especially explore themes of regret for one’s sins and poor actions in life. The narrator expresses his guilt for living off of his friends and loved ones to live and waiting too long to make amends and repay them for their kindness, as they all leave him in some fashion, supposedly in death. He mourns in regret for his inability to stick to even the rawest, simplest of deals. The song stops in the middle to cut back to another ¾ rock tune, yet still carries on that feeling of remorse and dismay and even heightens them to their most emotional levels. The narrator ends by accepting his punishment to come to him soon.
9.) The Big Sleep – Probably the most tear-jerking song of the whole bunch, we reach a song of true crime and punishment. In fact, I would daresay that if one wanted to learn how to compose a piece of music that builds in emotional impact, this would be a near-perfect exhibit. The narrator begins contemplating Death, the ultimate judge, as he walks into a courtroom to await his sentence. The song starts with the melancholy strumming of a guitar like a trudging walk from life to death, portrayed brilliantly without the use of a drum section. As soon as the cello comes in, the narrator awaits his sentence only to be declared guilty. An ethereal sounding piece joins the guitar and cello and builds the woe and sorrow higher and higher. And as it is elevated ever higher, it reaches a peak as only a music box/piano melody matches the singing of the narrator, alone in the courtroom, his wife and children having left alongside the prosecution. A bailiff comes in and starts the cello and guitar once more, like Acheron leading the souls of the damned into the Inferno. I can’t blame them to hate me for what I’ve done. He prays for forgiveness in his final hours, his final wish being that his wife and children start life anew without him and that they know that he never meant for it all to come to this. The song finally bursts into a grand funeral march to the execution room, building the grief to its highest degree. Perhaps it is melodramatic or overly sappy, but I firmly believe that there are few better ways to elicit sympathy than in the emotion of regret.
10.) Shiola – Following ‘The Big Sleep’, ‘Shiola’ is also sad and gloomy, but doesn’t build and build in its musical composition. Rather, it keeps its tone the same throughout, as a relatively quiet acoustic guitar piece. The narrator reminisces about his family, wife and child, and his love for them. He thinks back to his love for his wife and how he raised his child in a mostly pacifistic philosophy. If you’re wondering why these descriptions are placed in the past tense…well, it’s heavily implied that the man’s family has died somehow. For one, Shiola sounds incredibly similar to the Hebrew word “Sheol” which translates to ‘grave’, ‘pit’, or ‘abode of the dead’. There are also verses like Is it wrong to love a family of ghosts? and I live alone, more or less/I summon wife, child, and happiness. While I will admit, the song is incredibly heart-wrenching, probably moreso than ‘The Big Sleep’ due to its minimalist fashion, I must ask how it fits in with the theme of redemption, sin, or punishment. The song before this one clearly had a tone of guilt throughout it but also played with the theme of redemption. This song definitely uses guilt, but leaves the idea of redemption or punishment rather ambiguous. Regardless, it is still a great sad song.
11.) Steam Rising – The cello comes back into use here while the acoustic guitar picks and plucks away while steam rises hot and angry from the cracks of the floor and the dents in the gravel, rising from the womb of Hell below. Whether it be metaphorical or real, Hell is certainly boiling over in this song (at least in the lyrics; the music is rather tame and creeps slowly, but I suppose that is the idea). I suppose the idea being visited here in the whole ‘sin and punishment’ theme is a notion that had been visited before in previous songs like ‘Raw Deal’ and ‘One More Notch’: how punishments and retribution come back to haunt us sooner than we think. There isn’t an awful lot to say about this one, being rather short and straightforward and all.
12.) The Devil Drives – Despite the title, this is the ultimate song of redemption and oddly one of the softest pieces on the album. The drum flickers away like a lounge-song piece and the acoustic guitar really only matches the melody of Turla’s vocals. To compare this to a song of considerably heavier rock, Sympathy for the Devil by The Rolling Stones, a song about the faults and flaws of mankind, personified in The Devil, showing sympathy for mankind’s mistakes and sins. Here, there isn’t so much sympathy, but rather acceptance, as The Devil is just driving by as he always has been. In turn, mankind suffers from flaws and faults day in and day out as a part of nature. Everybody knows it. But still, there’s hope to learn from our mistakes and start over again. As the chorus sings this out, the music grows loud once more into a final goodbye to the listener on a message of optimism and faith.
As said before, multiple concepts on an album, despite being interrelated, can often be sticky things to work around. Though each portion of said concept complements each other, it’s easy to get lost in them and wind up turning out something only vaguely related to the big theme(s) at large. Murder by Death, though, for the most part (save for maybe ‘Shiola’, ‘Boy Decide’, and ‘Steam Rising’), is able to keep the direction of each theme straightforward and down the right path each time. The songs range from raucous and tough to reserved and soft. While they don’t manage to match the degree of remorse that Johnny Cash was able to master, especially in his later years, they come damn near close. Turla’s lyrics set scenes and tell stories almost as well as a professional short-story writer.
In Bocca Al Lupo may or may not be great in portraying themes of sin, punishment and redemption in seriously contemplative, cerebral ways, but it comes close enough. Besides, there is something to be said about addressing a message in simplicity, especially when you are able to address it with near-unmatchable levels of style.