Blitzen Trapper — Destroyer of the Void, Pt. 1

rm2

I’ve died a thousand times, found out what it means to be believed…

Let’s talk about dreams. I’m obsessed with them. You might have guessed that from previous reviews, or you might not. Mine are vivid, often rather coherent and set in a continuous, somewhat consistent world, as far as dreams can be consistent. I’ve seen dark things, roaming that dusty, empty world in a Jeep that I no longer own, and have not owned in decades, with people I barely know in the waking world beside me as my companions. I’ve killed the king and I’ve been him, played the hero and the villain, been a woman, to the extent that I know what that is, been a child again… and it was all meaningful, even if I didn’t always know what it meant.

(The trick to remembering your dreams is to keep a notepad by your bed and write them down first thing, by the way.)

So even if I were to believe (which I don’t) in the materialist view, which is to say, believe that nothing is supernatural, everything is physical and that mankind understands her environment* pretty well, I would still maintain that that other world was also real. Not “real” in the strictly materialist sense, which is to say, made of atoms or whatever, but real in the sense that it’s a substantial part of the human condition, a part of our reality. Modern psychology may have discounted dreams, but I still hold with Freud and Jung and the rest that dreams are deeply meaningful, a part of our existence that can enlighten and teach. Hell, at times I earnestly think that ideas are more real than things, in which event dreams take on every quality of reality except for  consistency and persistence.

It is by way of admitting my bias that I say all of this. Only a few bands and artists transport me to the world of dreams in waking life, and I love them all dearly, as one

LetThereBeMoreLight

Then, at last, the mighty ship, descending on a point of flame…

loves kin. Bob Dylan with his late 60’s psychedelic rambling was probably the first, and Peter Gabriel has certainly managed (though that brings up my yearning for the late 80’s when global activism and I were both in our primes), but the ones that take me there consistently are Blitzen Trapper and early-era Pink Floyd. I don’t write glowing reviews of early Floyd, because I feel like very few people would get it. My love for “Let There Be More Light” is grounded in the things I read and watched and the things I dreamed about in middle childhood, and I bet that, to most people, it’s just a silly song about aliens. To me, the bloom hasn’t rubbed off the idea of extraterrestrial life, and the idea of first contact… it still sounds like something that could happen and something that would be profound and moving. Hence, I love that damn song.

Image result for destroyer of the void

The Four-Eyed Cow of Doom

I guess I shouldn’t review Blitzen Trapper either by that token, but since I’ve already started this series, by gaw, I’ll see it through. Destroyer of the Void… well…

Like the moment when Julius Caesar brought his troops into the Roman Demilitarized Zone with the bated calm of a gambler rolling the dice, Destroyer was the end of an era, and by necessity, the beginning of a new one. Worse? Probably. Different, certainly.

So far, I haven’t been able to write a halfway decent review of this album, because there’s so much that was good and so much that was bad about it.

I’ve decided to review it in two parts, because it is a double album (though I tend to think they could have condensed it into a single LP without losing more than one or two songs), and more importantly because the two discs are different beasts altogether.

Destroyer is the most progressive of BT’s albums. Now, in a previous review, I compared prog-rock to “total art.” Ideally, it should be the full package–art, physical presentation, liner notes if possible, music and, finally, album-craft.

In the physical regard, the album does not really disappoint, I guess: the package of the vinyl edition (which I bought when I saw them live, my first and for a long time last piece of BT vinyl) is very handsome, with damn cool art both front and back, and inside the gatefold. There’re no liner notes, not that I typically miss them with BT. When an album does have them, it’s always frontman Eric Earley writing them, and maybe he should let somebody else do it. But then again, Bob Dylan has taught us that third-party liner notes can actually be worse: “In the end the plague touched us all…” What a load of hock. And to think that the man who wrote the liners to “Blood on the Tracks” also stood and disarmed Sirhan Sirhan after the murder of RFK…

The vinyl is sturdy 180-gram or whatever it is that we’re all supposed to flip for now, which is to say about half-again as thick as, and far sturdier than, LP’s were when I got into them. I rather like the thick vinyl here, but sometimes it grates, and I do think they’re just as prone to skipping and warping. There’s cool custom labels, not standard Sub>Pop fare. (Does Sub>Pop even have standard labels for their vinyl? Beach House fans, can you tell me?)

I think it’s probably a damn waste of vinyl to press this on two discs. The album comes to about forty-seven or forty-eight minutes. They could have trimmed some ends of songs and gotten it on one disc. Who even cares about the fadeout? I guess that with fewer songs per side, you can have better groove spacing and so better dynamics, but with modern production you’re not going to get the rich 70’s-type of dynamic range anyways. You’re not shooting on film, baby…  Anyways, that’s not important; let’s get to the music.

I came upon Blitzen Trapper on YouTube around the time “American Goldwing,” the album after Destroyer, was released, so I started with Furr and Destroyer both readily available. I’d say that the two songs that got me into the band were the two title tracks of the two albums–worlds apart, to be sure, but two sides of the same coin*. The title track to Destroyer is six minutes long. It nods at Queen, Led Zeppelin and probably the Beatles without losing its originality. I appreciate that; it’s a brand new statement in the musical language of the 70’s, not blind aping imitation like those Greta Van Fleet punks. Grow up and get your own place, kids. More on that in a future review.

So what can we say about Destroyer? It’s a sci-fi ballad about some kind of “Space Cowboy”-esque hero who… does a thing. He destroys the void, I guess. I guess the void was eating the Earth, and he stopped it? But then he had to take his lover and run to another solar system.

…I swear, if you weren’t into this sh*t as a kid, you probably will never be. Space-rock for life.

Musically, it’s excellent, laid out in movements like a classical suite–first there’s an a capella section that introduces the title character, then there’s a rock section that sets up the romance angle, and then there’s the chaos break.

(How I love the Blitzen Trapper chaos break: you can see it in a lot of their songs around the three-quarter mark, like a solo where the instrument is whatever weird noises they can come up with on their recording hardware and whatever stock clips of movie dialogue and soundtrack they care to slip in under the surface, a la “Wish You Were Here.” It serves a lot of the same function as the guitar solo in a classic rock song: it’s the disintegration, where the tensions built up by the song are released in one burst before the last chorus.)

And then, like Satan in Paradise Lost*, the song wings its way uneasily out of Chaos, re-integrating into a vaguely Zeppelin-tinged hard-rock section in which we get the bulk of the narrative. The hero is tempted by a snake (Earley loves his Bible imagery), steals horses and then a spaceship, and takes his lover “to endless planets, worlds unknown.”

Then the coda hits, a McCartney-style piano ballad in which the narrator asks his lover if she’ll still love him in a million years, when Earth is gone, concluding with a recapitulation of the song’s first lines: “see this wayward son, boy/may you live to run another day.”

Actually, I’m not entirely sure that he’s not singing to a man, what with the “boy” in that second-to-last line, in the same verse as he addresses his lover. It’d be cross-type for Earley, at least as far as his writing to date goes, but his space cowboy character could be gay, I guess. I don’t know.

Image result for space western sci-fi book cover art

I’m the space cowboy/I think you know where it’s at.

Man, this is one thing I’m way into… space westerns and over-the-top sci-fi things. Silly, yeah, but consider what the late 70’s and early 80’s were like to grow up in. My brother and I were a little young to have gotten much of the run of He-Man, but we were reared on She-Ra and got into Gundam in the early 90’s when we were just the right age to appreciate it. Star Wars had some influence, I guess, and so did the cinematic Star Treks. So forgive me for a little nostalgia.

So is it a good song? Yeah, I think so, even if you don’t have the same nostalgia. It has a great vintage sound, but not the slavish devotion to the past that I come to detest. It’s a little overproduced, because the band seem a little insecure about the production values on Furr… or so Eric says in the liners to the Furr deluxe edition. 8/10.

Next is “Laughing Lover,” which but for one flaw would have been one of their great songs. It’s another “magical lover” song, like Earley likes to write. He shows his fascination with mysticism with lines like “Steal away the sun, the moon and stars/start simple with a woman’s voice,” which sounds like it’s about destroying and recreating the world, and “wisdom lingers on the fingers of the fortress/like a lazy ghost,” which is damn evocative even if it is probably meaningless. The band sound great, with a winding, serpentine guitar riff fuzzed the hell out. The band sound great up to a certain point.

It doesn’t rock. The drumming is a four-on-the-floor pop-country pattern, a drum pattern that, living in the rural South around fans of Luke Bryant and Florida-Georgia Line, I’m rather tired of. There’s only really one part of the song where a real back-beat comes in, and it’s too little, too late.  Not having a rock beat just kind of lets the air out of the whole dynamic. I still kind of like it, but it needs a beat more like the next song. 6/10

Next up is a song that draws a little on “Stairway to Heaven,” “Below the Hurricane.” At this point, Eric probably stops trying to make sense. It’s got a lot of mysticism and the lyrics, frankly, just sound nice. It’s about dark and mystical things happening on a dark and cold night out in the woods, I guess. Or I’m just projecting. Musically, it’s top-tier Blitzen Trapper. It has the only noticeable twelve-string guitar part on any Blitzen Trapper song I can think of, in an intro that’s pretty cool sounding. After the airy, acoustic A-section reaches its logical conclusion, another section starts, with a stripped-down, elemental sound and a “Heart of Gold”-type of back-beat and bass-line, not to mention a shimmering harmonica part and scattered piano that seems to drift in and out of the mix like it’s coming in from the next room. Unfortunately, Eric’s voice is rather shrill on this take. Really, it’s a very nice song, but every part of it could have been a little better, except for that intro. 6/10

On side two of disc one, we have “The Man Who Would Speak True,” another murder ballad in a very similar vein to the famous and enduring Black River Killer,” off Furr. In a way, it feels like a retread. But it’s a distinct song, despite the similar topic and the similar melody. In Killer, the killer is a mysterious, perhaps Satanic force that can possess anyone, a force that the song doesn’t really give any explanations about. Randall Flag? Nyarlathotep? Sure, let’s go with that. Whereas, in “The Man Who Would Speak True,” the man is explicitly possessed by his tongue. No, actually, it’s not his tongue, it’s a plant that has been grafted into his mouth, apparently as part of a necromantic ritual to raise him from the dead. Yeah, so to summarize a long story in a very few words, basically this dude is dead and a girl, “Grace,” digs him up with a jawbone, dresses him up and brings him back to life with this “green and a-growing plant.” So… he kills her and everyone else he meets, first with a gun and then by telling the truth to them, and eventually ends up turning himself in to a magistrate of a small town by the sea, who executes him by planting him in the sand at low tide. Or something. It draws a lot on old Appalachian murder ballads like “Little Sadie” aka “Bad Lee Brown.”

Whoa, dude. There’s a lot going on here. There’s a lot of characters doing a lot of things, by the standards of a three-minute song, and there’s also some weird moralizing or something. There’s even at least one gratuitous Grateful Dead reference. I think, in the final analysis, that it’s a Lovecraftian horror story, and like most of Lovecraft’s stories, Earley explains too much about the monster. If the BRK is Nyarlathotep, the plant-man is the Yith in “The Shadow out of Time:” he’s not horrifying, because we know so much about him. But then again, there are some great lines in this song, and if I can’t appreciate it as a horror story, I can appreciate it as a story, nonetheless (and this is my opinion of Lovecraft and of Shadow specifically, too.)

Musically, it’s a little slight, finger-picked guitar and snarling blues harmonica with Blitzen Trapper’s usual studio trimmings. I’m feeling a little generous because it is a song where a dude’s tongue is replaced by a plant, which possesses him and lets him kill people by telling the truth. In the immortal words of a wise old Buddhist I once knew, das f*cked up. 6.5/10.

Next is one of the least flawed songs on Destroyer, “Love and Hate.” One thing you might notice already is that the tone is all over the place, unlike Furr. “Love and Hate” is where the album almost starts to come together, though. It’s a song about being betrayed and dumped by your girl–one thing is that Eric can’t mess up the classics. This has been a topic of rock songs from the old days, and it gets a treatment at once familiar and fresh.

Yeah, Eric writes this as a fantasy story. It’s what he ended up being good at, in the end, and I can stand it. You might not be able to, so I will readily admit that this is a niche song on something of a niche album. The narrator sounds a little like Gandalf talking about the aftermath of his battle with the Balrog. “I wandered down through dusty towns/witness to the wars that rage within men’s minds.” I rather like it, lyrically speaking, but it’s no Furr or “Shoulder Full of You.”

Musically, it’s pretty great, with a vaguely Sabbath-influenced heavy metal sound (it’s definitely the most metal song they ever did) and a Doors-like overdriven organ solo that’s frankly one of the top ten things on the album. I wish Eric’s voice was a little better on it, and I probably wish it was a little less over-the-top, but its one of the closest things to classic BT on this album, tied with the title track and “The Man Who Would…” 7/10

Then there’s “Heaven and Earth,” which I never really liked. It’s more of Eric’s mysticism, but I can’t help but think it’s a fairly transparent discussion of the Christian church–whether from an inside or outside perspective, I don’t know. The refrain, a vaguely piratical “heaven and earth are mine, says I,” is so damn repetitive that I end up skipping the last third of it when listening on my computer. The music is vaguely ELO, with a simple, dark string arrangement that also grates. I give the last song on this disk a 4.5/10.

If I were to consider this disk as an EP, I’d say it was alright, with a weak song and a couple of good songs that weren’t perfect. Unfortunately, this disk is yoked together unequally with another… which is very different, barely the same album. You’ll see when we get to it. Either would be kind of alright on their own, but together it’s a long and annoying mess with a few zen moments.

So what went wrong between Furr and Destroyer? Notice that in other reviews I mention noise-rock influences a lot, and talk about the band. Now those influences seem almost gone, and one personality dominates, to the point that, writing this review, I find myself on a first-name basis with him where I wasn’t before. That is the enigmatic man they call Eric Earley, and on Destroyer, the band starts feeling a lot more like his solo project. I’m going to go ahead and tabulate the score for this disc, and then I’ll average the two together at the end of Part 2.

High Point: Destroyer
Low Point: “Heaven and Earth,” which seems fitting, as the whole album is a declining trend.
Whole Disc Average: 6.4/10
Overall score: TBD


*Mankind is a she, right? Countries are shes, ships are shes, airplanes under a certain tonnage… oh, I dunno.
*Or, times being what they are…
*Book II, if you’re interested. It’s one of the best parts.
All images claimed under fair non-commercial use. Fantasy art by the esteemed Rodney Matthews, found online. Contact me if you represent Rodney Matthews or the artist of the magazine cover and wish them to be taken down. All content reviewed is the property of its respective owners, all opinions mine. Stan Lee is in Valhalla.

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