April 15, 2022

I have to admit, I have never for a single moment looked at my record collection and concluded that it was short of a concept album about mountaineering. And yet, I now have to concede that it was a hole all along, waiting for this thoughtful and lovingly rendered work to fill it.

Kaprekar’s Constant are a band with whom I have been eager to acquaint myself with a little more for quite a while now, so this release is a very welcome one. Having become familiar with the band’s album Fate Outsmarts Desire, and being extremely impressed, this was quite the tempting prospect. Add to that the fact that the seven-piece line-up includes David Jackson (of Van Der Graaf Generator legend) on sax and flute, and I’m strapped in and ready for the ride! It’s immediately apparent that there is an immediate difference between this album and Fate Outsmarts Desire as, whereas that earlier record contained a couple of very extended ‘epic’ pieces, the longest track here is just under seven and a half minutes, with a few more breaking the six minute barrier. There is a reason for that, however, as this is a fully conceptual release and, as such, has no need for individual sprawling epics – every track here meshes together to form what is best heard as a grand cohesive whole.

Photo: Sean Kelly

The album title The Murder Wall gives a clue as to the nature of the concept (and if it doesn’t, the mountain depicted on the cover does), because ‘The Murder Wall’ is in fact the name given by mountaineers to the fearsome – and for a long time thought to be unclimbable – North Face of the Eiger. It’s actually an exceptionally good idea for a concept – if one which I would have never thought of myself – not least because it is twofold in its scope. Firstly, it’s interesting and educational from a purely historical point of view – the lyric booklet includes a number of detailed handwritten notes against the songs as regards the events which inspired those particular lyrics, and even as someone who has never had a great deal of interest in mountaineering it is a fascinating read. Secondly, and perhaps more significantly, the most powerful thing which comes over is that it is a testament to the human spirit, and the indomitable courage of these men who are driven to attempt something hair-raisingly harsh and dangerous simply because it is ‘there’. Whether you believe these hardy souls to be fools or heroes – or quite likely a combination of the two – it is hard not to be moved and even inspired by much of the material here.

This is a meticulously put together work, that much is abundantly clear. The lyrics have been honed to a fine precision, hardly a word wasted or out of place in terms of the emotional impact of the material. Musically as well, these are concise pieces of songwriting, shorn of all temptation for bloated grandstanding showboating solos and the like, and instead fitting together like seventeen finely tooled pieces of a jigsaw. It’s plain that this is a work conceived of love of and respect for the subject matter, a fact which imbues it with depth, heft and gravitas which it could scarcely achieve otherwise.

Through the development of the album, we are introduced to the terrifying Murder Wall itself, learning of early failures including a 1936 expedition which claimed the lives of four men, until we come to the first successful ascent in July 1938 as the music matches the achievement with the genuinely uplifting and celebratory Victorious. This is around the mid-point, and we still have to hear about such fascinating tales as the time people mourned the apparent loss of the third climber of an otherwise successful expedition in 1959, only for the men to return and reveal this ‘third climber’ as nothing more than a falling overcoat jettisoned by one of the two actual mountaineers, By the album’s penultimate track, Mountaineers, we reach the first successful British ascent in 1962, by a party including Chris Bonington – a man who became a hero to a whole generation of British schoolboys in the ’60s and ’70s, inspired by his appearances on the TV show Blue Peter. Almost ‘the Evel Knievel of mountaineers’ for a time; his very name evokes in those of a certain age images of his youthful appearance, with his beard and affable personality, as if preserved in amber. It’s the perfect way to approach the climax of the album.

As previously stated, this is a work which cries out to be heard as a piece, yet there are inarguable standouts to be found. The opening Prologue is a fine introduction, and the infectious Tall Tales By Firelight will have you singing the chorus long after the album finishes. Failure Takes Care Of Its Own movingly puts that fatal mission into stark relief, while Victorious is so jubilant that even without lyrics is would be clear that the damned wall has at last been conquered! Finally, the three-part The Stormkeeper’s Daughter / A World Beyond Man / The Stormkeeper’s Reprise is to these ears possibly the high point (or ‘peak’ to labour a metaphor) of the whole album. It is run close however by the anthemic and cathartic closer Hall Of Mirrors.

The musicianship throughout is faultless, with everyone playing in the service of the music at all times, with egos clearly checked at the door. Al Nicholson contributes some excellent guitar work, while Dorie Jackson’s vocals are a particular standout, and there is even a superb guest lead vocal on the track Years To Perfect by Judie Tzuke, putting the icing on a very fine cake indeed. I have to admit, I have never for a single moment looked at my record collection and concluded that it was short of a concept album about mountaineering. And yet, I now have to concede that it was a hole all along, waiting for this thoughtful and lovingly rendered work to fill it. I’ll be keeping a close eye on Kaprekar’s Constant now for sure, and checking out what I’ve missed so far – but just don’t ask me to take up rock climbing as well. That remains a step too far!