Thursday, June 20, 2013

album review: 'dancer and the moon' by blackmore's night

In the fall of 2012, many mainstream music critics were hailing the new indie rock explosion, and at the forefront of that wave we had acts like Mumford & Sons and The Lumineers and Phillip Phillips. Now, granted, I was never a huge fan of any of these acts, but I understand what they do and they occasionally managed to impress me. Yes, even Mumford & Sons (I stand by my criticism of the act that they really don't contribute anything to music as a whole, but they certainly don't embarrass themselves that badly unless you dig deeply into their lyrics).

But what I took a little umbrage to at the time was the genre classification of the majority of these acts, and how people were calling them 'folk rock'. It wasn't that I disagreed, per se - indeed, if I were pressed to come up with a genre classification of these acts other than indie, I'd probably call them contemporary folk rock and run with that. But what annoyed me a bit was the level of mainstream acclaim these acts received. Once again, I wouldn't call any of these acts bad, but at least to me, they sure as hell didn't represent the folk rock with which I was most familiar.

And with that, let's talk about Blackmore's Night.

As I mentioned before, when I was younger, I skipped straight from pop music and Eminem to power and symphonic metal, and in the process of using that old, unreliable bit of vapourware Limewire, I came across several songs that were mistakenly noted as Nightwish songs. As most of you probably remember, getting accurate song titles and band names in the days of Limewire (to say nothing of album names) was a nightmare, and pre-Wikipedia (this was around 2005), it required a fair amount of legwork to figure out what these songs actually were. Eventually, I managed to discover that these songs came from a  medieval folk rock act known as Blackmore's Night, founded by former Deep Purple virtuoso guitarist Ritchie Blackmore and his wife Candice Night. 

And as a teenage fantasy nerd, I immediately fell head over heels for Blackmore's Night. Almost all of the elements clicked - Ritchie Blackmore's impressive guitar work, Candice Night's ethereal voice, the backing instrumentation was properly modulated to build to impressive crescendos, and the lyrics were steeped in fantasy and Wiccan culture. They immediately set in my impressionable mind the definition of what I thought folk rock was, and that definition persisted until my uncle introduced me to Bob Dylan. 

So coming back to Blackmore's Night as a more mature music critic, does the band hold up to my expectations? Well, for the most part, yes. As with Deep Purple, the instrumentation is easily the biggest strength of Blackmore's Night, and Ritchie Blackmore's guitar work has remained as solid as ever. And I must admit a certain fondness for Candice Night willowy, ethereal delivery that perfectly matches the quasi-mystical feel the band is attempting to cultivate. Unfortunately, while the band does have an impressive repertoire of material in myth and legend to draw upon, they do occasionally repeat cliches between songs a little more than they should. And while they are more innovative and interesting songwriters than Deep Purple, I would hesitate to put them on any sort of pedestal here. It also doesn't help that they've done some pretty hit-and-miss covers over the course of their careers (the most egregious example being of 'Times They Are A Changin', which is just awful and embarrassing).

But if anything, I think the biggest 'barrier to entry' with regards to Blackmore's Night is the fact that they're a bit difficult to take seriously, specifically due to their genre. As much as I have issues with Game of Thrones, I will admit that the one net positive the HBO series is doing is increasing the mainstream public's tolerance for fantasy in their pop culture (a process begun in most cases by The Lord of the Rings films). But even with that,  it can be tough to buy into an act that sings about magic and fae and fantasy with wholehearted sincerity, and Blackmore's Night doesn't have an ounce of cynicism or winking in their subject matter. They believe what they're selling, and thus it's absolutely no surprise that they only tend to play live at Renaissance fairs and smaller, medieval-themed venues - which also puts a definite ceiling on any mainstream success they're aiming to have. But then again, I'm not sure Ritchie Blackmore is actively looking for mainstream success in the same way he was with Deep Purple - to him, Blackmore's Night is a passion project, and he's not going to turn it into work.

So with all of that in mind, how is their discography? Well, I'd describe all of their previous albums as good, but I'd have a hard time calling them great, mostly due to inconsistency. Typically per album you'll get three or four great songs and a whole lot of passable material, but not much more. Their most recent album Autumn Sky (released in 2010) was probably on the lower end of that spectrum - not as shaky as their debut album Shadows of the Moon, but not as strong as Village Lanterne (yeah, they spell 'lanterne' with an extra 'e' - they're that kind of band).

So, in the past week, they released a new album, Dancer And The Moon - how does it fair?

Unfortunately, not that well. And it's a sad thing, because the more I consider what Dancer And The Moon is, the more I think that Blackmore's Night is continuing down a path begun by Autumn Sky that is not playing to their strengths.

First, let me begin by saying that most of what makes Blackmore's Night good is still here. The instrumentation, particularly the guitar work, is very strong (although I can't help but feel the instrumental diversity has dropped a little, particularly in comparison to their stronger albums). Candice Night's voice sounds as good as ever, and while I wouldn't say the guitar solos by Blackmore are at their absolute best, they certainly aren't anything to sneeze at either.

Interestingly, the first problem becomes apparent in the production of the album. While it might be a minor nitpick, there's a definite production discrepancy between certain songs, to the point where there are audible differences in the vocals between tracks. The closest thing I can think of to compare this to is the inclusion of 'Beautiful' on Eminem's Relapse, a song recorded while he was in rehab and featuring measurably rougher vocal production that the rest of the album. But here, it adds a hairline fracture in the immersion of the album as a whole, and it can become distracting.

But a bigger problem in the production is just how much flatter the sound of the albums appears to be. As a band, Blackmore's Night were at their best when they allowed their sound to expand and grow, with the judicious use of reverb and echo to create that larger-than-life feel that you were being transported through time into historical grandeur. But on Dancer And The Moon, too many of the songs feel 'closer' and more intimate - which wouldn't be so much of a problem if the songwriting and instrumentation supported that, which they don't.

this leads directly to a discussion of the covers included on Dancer And The Moon, one being a passable Rainbow cover (I'll come back to this), one being a Uriah Heep cover (easily the best song on the album, but that's more because Uriah Heep is such a natural fit for Blackmore's Night in both tone and subject matter), and one being a Randy Newman cover of all things. And look, I'll never be the biggest fan of Randy Newman, but I will acknowledge he wrote some very tight, very intimate material that was almost defined by his tightness of focus - which really doesn't fit well with Blackmore's Night and their attempts to recreate the inherent awesomeness of medieval fantasy. 

But if anything, that's the biggest problem with this album: outside of a few isolated cases, none of the songs and particularly the songwriting on this album have the ambition to even approach that medieval fantasy scope, and when they do, they too often feel like shallow retreads of material Blackmore's Night has already done (the title track is essentially 'Cartouche', one of the better songs from Blackmore's Night's 2003 album Ghost of a Rose). Now some of you might be saying, 'Wait a second, you called Village Lanterne one of Blackmore's Night's best albums, and it tackled subject matter much closer to our time!' And I would agree with that, except Village Lanterne worked by taking Blackmore's Night's tendencies for 'bigger' songs and applying them to more intimate situations, which only intensified the very real emotions in those songs. 

On Dancer And The Moon, there is none of that tighter focus, and the best evidence of that are two songs: 'Somewhere Over The Sea (The Moon Is Shining)' and 'The Moon Is Shining (Somewhere Over The Sea)'. They are effectively the same song - they share a lot of lyrics and chord progressions, but the difference is in the instrumentation. One is a traditional folk rock song. The other is a modernized pop remix of the track, complete with rhythmic electronic production and hints of autotune. And the utterly bizarre thing is that the second track is actually better, because it's one of the few tracks on the album that actually goes for that larger scope!

In short, there isn't really much to talk about when it comes to this Blackmore's Night album, mostly because it's the eighth album of the band effectively following the same template. But like with Autumn Sky, it feels like Blackmore's Night is running on autopilot and are seriously running out of ideas of how to adapt their material for their chosen genre. Which, if I'm to be completely honest, is absolutely baffling:  with Village Lanterne, Blackmore's Night established a method of adapting their larger-than-life, 'epic fantasy' persona to more modern subject material. Now, granted, that sort of adaptation requires some serious legwork on the songwriting department, and the more I think about it, the less I'm convinced Ritchie Blackmore is willing to put in that effort. I mean, what is the purpose of covering a Rainbow song, particularly when Rainbow was a band Blackmore created over thirty years ago?

And then you realize that Ritchie Blackmore is sixty-eight, and on that alone, I was inclined to make excuses - you get old, you get tired, you eventually run out ideas, and given Blackmore's reclusive nature, it's not entirely surprising his material has started to repeat itself. But then I remembered the fact that Deep Purple put out Now What?! earlier this year, and despite their advanced ages, it's one of the best albums of their career, with incredible musicianship and improved songwriting. And considering the vast amount of high-quality work Blackmore has put out, why should I be making excuses for him?

So in the end, Dancer And The Moon is passable, I guess, but I'm not sure why it exists. If anything, it only continues the downward trend begun on Autumn Sky, and in choosing to use a flatter sound, Blackmore's Night is not playing to their strengths and only highlighting their weaknesses. If you're curious, I recommend checking out 'Lady In Black' (the Uriah Heep cover), but otherwise you can skip this album.

Blackmore, you're one of the greatest guitarists of all time and I will never begrudge you that. But you can do better.

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