May 12, 2023

What the Black Dog String Quartet do here that sounds unique to me is to fully maintain that classical style of quartet writing – without drifting into providing just pleasant background noises – while adding the human voice and in some cases brass, percussion, and upright bass. It’s a winning combination.

It seems to me that classical crossover is all too often either a rock band with an orchestra tacked on (for example, Deep Purple’s Concerto For Group And Orchestra, or Yes’ Symphonic Live) or a famous classical soloist dabbling in the world of rock or pop music (Pavarotti, Nigel Kennedy, Vanessa-Mae etc). Occasionally, but not often, you can hit the soft spot between the two worlds that represents a genuine mix of the two genres. Accept’s Symphonic Terror is one such case where they put a metal spin on famous classical pieces and also a classical spin on their own hits. And now from Vancouver, Canada, are another band whose debut album hits that soft spot brilliantly but this time coming very much from the classical side of the divide.

A musical string quartet is, as the name implies, a piece of music played by four string instruments. The instruments in question are two violins, a viola and a cello, and the configuration was codified by Haydn around 1750 and since then just about every major composer from Beethoven to Shostakovich has written string quartets. The magic of the classical string quartet is that the four instruments rarely play in unison; the textures, moods and movement are created by the interplay of the four different voices.  What the Black Dog String Quartet do here that sounds unique to me is to fully maintain that classical style of quartet writing – without drifting into providing just pleasant background noises – while adding the human voice and in some cases brass, percussion, and upright bass. It’s a winning combination.

The group (if I may call them that!) have been around since 2007 and have established quite a reputation, having played with such eminent names as Rod Stewart and Kayne West. They’ve dabbled with some of their own crossover work and rock fans might find their version of Toto’s Africa, available on YouTube, intriguing. No doubt rock fans will also be wondering whether they are fans of Led Zeppelin. I don’t know the answer to that question but John Kastelic (viola) and Doug Gorkoff (cello) both sport the sort of long beards common in the death metal community so they may well be closet metal fans. The other members of the quartet, by the way, are two beard-free ladies, Elyse Jacobson and Molly Mackinnon.

The nine tracks on A Thousand Times Brighter mix pop/rock and folk genres on top of the underlying string quartet. In one song, Dizzying View, they even go for a big band jazz sound, so there’s no question they have eclectic tastes. Vocal duties are shared by Kastelic and two guest singers (Naomi Kavka and Chelsea Rose). Two songs have a strong rock orientation: the excellent How I Remember It, with its fine hook line and lively backing from the string quartet, and the enjoyable but less memorable Two. The latter is sung by Kastelic, and I confess I wasn’t impressed by the tone of his voice here, although he does shine elsewhere on the album. One other song, the excellent Rain And Shine, has an upbeat rockier feel to it too, that is drums and bass free and instead is driven along by a Philip Glass-like minimalist rhythm from the strings.

Folk music is represented overtly by the traditional song All The Pretty Horses, sung beautifully by Kavka, and accompanied by some lovely violin playing. The closing track Sea Of Clover is perhaps the standout song and sounds for all the world like a traditional folk song but is an original Kastelic composition. You could easily imagine Maddy Prior singing this one on a Steeleye Span album. Another highlight is Thompson, a ballad with poetic lyrics, very much in the mould of Leonard Cohen. This is the type of music that fits well in a concise three or four minute form, so it was a surprise to see Summer Song clock in at almost nine minutes. The song does work though thanks to the way it grows from a languid start through to a quite impassioned climax, aided by some lovely work on the strings along the way.

Over these nine tracks, Black Dog String Quartet manage to mix classical, folk, pop and jazz influences while making it all sound amazingly natural and coherent. The music is reflective and the lyrics thoughtful and this is an album that should appeal to a broad audience. It’s certainly one of the most unique albums I’ve heard in a while and it’s worth giving it a spin just for that.