Crippled Black Phoenix - 200 Tons of Bad Luck
Alex Cocks 05/06/2009
Prog, in its contraction, has become a journalistic shorthand for musical excess. 200 Tons of Bad Luck, the second release from Crippled Black Phoenix following 2006's A Love of Shared Disasters, is a contraction of two albums (The Resurrectionists and Night Raider which are still available to buy via their label Invada as a deluxe box set) and is an album that has progressive tendencies. I mean that in the best possible way. Grouped around Justin Greaves, Crippled Black Phoenix are a revolving collective that attempt to realise his vision. They have been described as a “post-rock supergroup”, mainly due to the fact that Dominic Aitchison, bassist in Mogwai, is involved and Greaves' own musical past. Having been the drummer in Iron Monkey and Electric Wizard, Greaves is consciously attempting to distance himself from any scene and instead has created a pulsing, cinematic release that celebrates the unbending human spirit, shot through with flashes of humour and positivity.
The progressive tendencies are most starkly realised on the 18 minute suite Time of Yer Life/Born for Nothing/Paranoid Arm of the Narcoleptic Empire, beginning with a sampled motivational speech by Evil Knievel, given while visiting a school, over plaintive minor key chords before building on these themes and moving seamlessly between movements. Knievel comes across with all the false bonhomie of the confidence trickster, a sinister presence rather than an enlightening one. The second movement is announced with a simple guitar figure before descending into an Isis-esque breakdown, and then finally abandons itself into arpeggiated synths and a (whisper it) guitar break worthy of Gilmour. At 18 minutes it is by some distance the longest track on offer here, but is never ponderous or lugubrious. All the familiar post-rock tropes are in place, but they are not dealt with in a hackneyed way. It characterises much of Crippled Black Phoenix's work; uplifting and stirring, with no bleakness or negativity.
Then there's the stoner rock elements in songs such as Rise Up and Fight and 444 which both combine desert blues with the sort of quadraphonic synthesiser sections that sound as if they were programmed by Alan Parsons for the Dark Side of the Moon sessions. 444 also contains several Eastern-influenced chord progressions which are a common aural theme throughout the album, and comes across as Eastern drone filtered through QOTSA. The reverb soaked guitars of Wendigo are similarly slowly consumed by strings, horns, the drone of a harmonium and then finally an Eastern motif.
There are various tone poems included on the album. Crossing The Bar utilises a sawed cello and intricate, finger-picked guitar before the pulsing beat subsides to a skeletal piano motif that drifts dreamily into a synthesised ending. The hymnal plainsong of A Hymn for a Lost Soul takes a group vocal over a simple piano motif, but it in its simplicity the tenderness and heart at the centre of the hymn shine through.
There is a black humour at work here. It can be evidenced in the song titles, the lyrical themes and the snippets of carnival music and other textures that contribute to the album. It can be evidenced in the spoken word samples chosen to illustrate various sections of the album (“We gotta loudspeaker here and when we go into battle we play music very loud...” from 444 and the aforementioned Evil Knievel speech). Considering Greaves' battles with post-traumatic stress disorder and varied personal problems this black humour is not unexpected.
Post-rock implies some form of rejection of rock's ethos, which makes their description as a 'post-rock supergroup' a falsity. They embrace a number of splinters from various 'rock' genres and weave them into the fabric of the album. This is why, essentially, an attempt to classify their music or relate it in terms of the personalities involved is futile. To describe them as a supergroup belittles the talent and skill on show; it implies a triumph of ego, whereas the album is about a sublimation of ego. On an album such as this there has to be a willingness to let go on the part of both performer and listener. Learning to forget.
The album rewards patience, and at 70 minutes it is long by modern attention spans, but stick with it. On their second album Crippled Black Phoenix liberally mine a wide range of genres and musical ideas. A good album should be a journey, should demand patience, and 200 Tons of Bad Luck does just that.