Murder by Death
Who Will Survive and What Will Be Left of Them?
Mikhail Bulgakov's satire "The Master and Margarita" follows Satan, disguised as foreign magician and master of black magic, Professor Woland, as he tears through Moscow causing disorder and hysteria with an entourage of memorable characters like the giant tomcat, Beelzebub. Often slapstick and ridiculous, but at the same time sharp and critical, this book has a distinctive style that makes it stick out from its peers, and its use of inset narrative, or the "novel within a novel," fleshes out the story with splashes of religion, spirituality, politics, and alcohol. Lots of vodka. This novel is long and rich and after I read it I felt sort of weird about it. The style betrayed and contradicted itself in a way I had never encountered before and the ensemble style cast left me confused but satisfied. So, the book was chaotic and unwieldy but I definitely enjoyed it. I could never at one point place my finger on where the story was going or what inane trick a character would pull next.
Who Will Survive and What Will Be Left of Them?
is basically the musical version of "The Master and Margarita." The CD's concept revolves around the Devil coming to a small western town and infecting the townsfolk with paranoia and alcoholism. Unlike Woland though, this Devil chooses whiskey, which is more befitting of a Western storyline. Murder by Death sort of raises the bar in terms of character development though. They have the Devil be a character as tortured as the people he infects, an interesting device. Aside from parallels in plot, they both have a confusing style. Murder by Death is respected and praised in the hardcore scene a lot, which is probably because they're on Eyeball Records and were "discovered" by Thursday's Geoff Rickley, but they don't fit that style at all. They are an indie band. They mix alternative and western influences to make a sort of rustic, dry sound. So, like Bulgakov's writing, Murder by Death's musical presentation is an anomaly, a fish out of water in the hardcore scene, and maybe the modern music scene in general. Bands like Calexico and Godspeed You! Black Emperor add western influences and motifs to indie music, but nobody pulls it off with the brutal candor of Murder by Death. Their lyrics are slurred with slang grammar, drawling like a non chalant cowboy. They mix slide guitar, cello, bar room style piano. They mix whatever else it takes the perfectly set the ambience and the synthesis of Satan, and the Wild West.
This album's success hinges off of the superb songwriting. How would one balance all the varied themes and styles from the aforementioned paragraph? They are writing a concept album unlike the nerdy, drugged-out, intergalactic scifi of a prog album, and unlike a gory, violent death metal one. This album is bitter, self-loathing, and dry. It lacks the fantastical ridiculousness of genres like prog and death metal because it's dealing with a more complex mindset. Murder by Death writes the meat and potatoes flavor of a western, but with a convoluted and sometimes bizarre interpretation of that flavor. Each song holds simplicity in the right hand and ingenuity in the other. So, songwriting is the linchpin. Murder by Death isn't hiding their secrets in riffs or solos, but in the lonelier, less upstaging places of music. They have droning drum rolls, and somber cello lines. Sometimes a simply strummed guitar, a piano line, and gruff vocals are all it takes to move the listener. Murder by Death wields this power well.
With great achievement often comes great sacrifice, and this album is no exception. Sometimes it's boring and slow. I've let my attention slip off to a website or book while listening to this album and I can completely zone it out. The album has tons of moments of intensity and even screaming, but in the end, unless you really explore the corners of this album, the songs will end up sounding similar. This is often the curse of bands that have distinctive styles. Alkaline Trio is starting to repeat themselves a lot, because they are just playing their hallmark sound. One would think that having a sound unlike anybody else would keep Murder by Death fresh, but often it makes this album homogeneous. Looking at this album on its own, it's sort of a straight shot. A brilliant shot if you ask me, but less involved fans will compress all the minor scales, cello lines, and wistful vocals into a tumbleweed and let it blow off out of view. As wonderful as Murder by Death is, they are just as forgettable if you don't take a step back every so often and realize these guys just tear it up. So, I recommend you have a taste. Even if the Devil and whiskey seem like it will wear out as the CD dies down on the last two tracks, the ride is worth it. There's superb songwriting, a unique style, and Bulgakov would be proud to take a swig of vodka in toast of this album.