A very strong work which succeeds on its own terms in its aim to set out this emotional, sensory world … You feel as if you have stepped into someone’s soul and are living their life and feeling what they feel, without always knowing exactly why.
For those new to the Blackheart Orchestra, it needs to be clarified that this is a far from an orchestra as you could conceivably get, as this particular collective are a more duo, consisting of multi-instrumentalists Chrissy Mostyn and Rick Pilkington. So, why ‘orchestra’, I would hear you asking if you were in fact talking to me. The answer quite simply is that what they do is to demonstrate that an almost unlimited palette of sonic colours can be produced by just two people, given the instrumentation and the talent to tame those instruments to their will. In this case it is more impressive even than a comparable achievement such as, say, Tubular Bells, because what these guys do so well is to recreate the dense instrumentation presented here in a live environment.
This is the second album under this name, although there was a preceding album credited to the shorter name of Blackheart, and they have both been excellent recordings, presenting a significant bar to reach. I’m happy to report that this has been achieved, with this record being an altogether more focused and tightly constructed album than 2017’s impressive but more disparate Diving For Roses.
The first thing to address is the ‘elephant in the room’, which is the unspoken challenge faced by any act like this who recreate an impressive amount of sound when playing it live, and that is the challenge of representing that act on record. The sight of two people weaving a tapestry of sound (and occasionally a big tapestry) in front of one’s very eyes can be a bewitching one, and has the advantage of taking the audience halfway with you before they even consider the quality of the music in isolation. In the studio, of course, all of this could be achieved by hundreds of overdubs without ever having to think about doing it live, so in effect recording an album can be like a ventriloquist on the radio. His whole illusion is lost to you, so he’d better be entertaining.
The way the ‘Orchestra’ have approached this on this new album is by partly stripping back the sound. That isn’t to say that it isn’t possessed of a depth and richness – if anything the contrary is true – but it retains a thematic focus on the instrumentation used more than its predecessor, which veered dramatically through different styles, with different songs carried by differing musical configurations. They could play it, and it was remarkable, but this record almost seems to have the feel of ‘we’re not here to impress you or show off. We just want to create great music, be it two of us or twenty’. And that works very, very well. In fact, you never give a thought to how the sound is being made, it simply exists.
Conceptually, this album is clearly very personal for Chrissy, as her mother was in the process of passing away during recording. The result fourteen songs represent, as she says, a journey through the different emotions that this life throws up for us, and how they work together to create our world. There is reflective sorrow, of course, but there is hope, joy, resolve, bitterness and self-loathing in equal measure. You feel as if you have stepped into someone’s soul and are living their life and feeling what they feel, without always knowing exactly why. This conceptual identity gives the album a strong unity of purpose right away, which is conveyed through the music, which is considerably more electronically based than its predecessors. Synthesizers abound, as washes of keyboards and synthesized percussion keep the listener immersed in the emotional sensory deprivation tank and heighten everything.
It is hard to pick standouts, but there are indeed some which jump out from the traffic. The big, bold More is perhaps the highlight, with the high drama of I Am and the heart-wringing self-recrimination of Never Do Do I only just behind. Indeed, I Am is one of the biggest, most expansive sounding tracks on the record, coming across as something akin to a melting pot of The Cranberries, Mama-era Genesis and Simple Minds, while managing to take only the best parts from all three of these somewhat flawed acts and create something unique. Mention of the Cranberries must lead to the observation that Chrissy’s voice on this album has taken on a quality eerily similar in places to that band’s late vocalist Delores O’Riordan. If Diving For Roses had her channeling Kate Bush a little more, this is certainly her ‘Delores Moment’, though one or two of the more ambient sections have a rather Clannad feel.
Throughout, the instrumentation is used without flash or ostentation. Splashes of electric guitar are used sparingly and with almost surgical precision, like the filigree on a delicate piece of jewelry rather than a big, if impressive, ruby dumped into the middle. You won’t play air guitar here – or if you do, it will be very sparing, note perfect, unassuming air guitar! If I was to make one criticism, it would be that the album cries out for one big ‘statement’, showcasing the full range of the ‘Orchestra’, from delicate whispering to crashing waves of sound and all points in between, and although Left To Right, More and the closing Another Lifetime go closest, that never quite happens, and leaves just a small unfinished corner.. .
Overall though, this is a very strong work which succeeds on its own terms in its aim to set out this emotional, sensory world. There are two of them, and in a live environment that is astonishing. On this album however, it’s not relevant. It’s an hour of great music created by an Orchestra. Embrace it.
Oh, and one more thing – if there were an award for the Smallest Use Of Text In A CD Booklet, we’d have a Grammy nomination here for sure! The lyrics are best studied with the benefit of the Jodrell Bank telescope… be warned…