Review Summary: With a flair for theatricality and a coherent synthesis of styles, Michael Cashmore’s own apocalyptic neofolk vision manages to stand out from those of David Tibet and Douglas Pearce, in spite of a prominent helping hand from both.
The neofolk preoccupation with esotericism, the occult, desert-mad gnostic visions of nature unveiled are out in full force on Beauty Reaps the Blood of Solitude. Apocalypse and the corruption of the flesh are the poetic stock in trade for Michael Cashmore’s vision, although his voice doesn’t even appear on the album. Rather, Cashmore relies on the voices of others to speak for him, most prominently Current 93 mastermind David Tibet. Of course, anyone even tangentially familiar with neofolk is going to make the obvious comparison between this and Tibet’s better-known project. And Tibet’s contribution to the album hearkens back to the symbols and turns of phrase so prominent in Current 93’s oeuvre: dog’s blood rising and thunder perfect mind, children weeping and Babylon falling, all images drawn from gnostic poetry and the libertine proto-surrealism of Les Chants De Maldoror. But despite the strongly collaborative nature of Tibet’s role (he and Death in June’s Douglas Pearce are handling the bulk of the vocal duties on the album) this feels far more like Cashmore’s show, albeit one expressed in dialogue between the most prominent voices in the neofolk scene.
What Beauty Reaps most prominently represents is synthesis, a cohering of varying voices of an underground scene united in its acid-and-incense spiritual leanings and dalliance with symbology of questionable taste and tainted provenance. Not only Tibet and Pearce but Strawberry Switchblade frontwoman and frequent neofolk collaborator Rose MacDowell, along with master of avant-terror Stephen Stapleton of Nurse With Wound lend their talents to this endeavor. There’s a sense, in the trialogue between the three singers that this is something of a concept album, though what that concept could be is as opaque as the lurid descriptions of skeleton tongued worlds and wicker fingers. Unsurprising then, that the music of Beauty Reaps the Blood of Solitude draws from a number of different wells, the most prominent of course being the cryptic, pseudo-medieval folk that Tibet had been making the framework for his gnostic Christian Armageddon poems for some time. Michael also adds liberally to this formula with industrial clangor and murk, as well as neoclassical interludes that serve to punctuate the gravitas that he is striving for.
But here, the overall sound tends towards greater polish than much of Current 93 or Death in June’s output, and more straightforward. For one, Cashmore’s a more talented guitarist than Pearce, his versatile style more nimble than Pearce’s frankly rudimentary strumming. For another, Cashmore’s arrangements are more conventional than those of Tibet or Pearce, and more professional despite the esoteric subject matter. And while there’s a certain earthiness or perhaps just depth missing from Beauty Reaps that made the likes of Imperium and Thunder Perfect Mind so indelible, the polish and delicate arrangement of this album are only playing to Cashmore’s compositional strengths. There’s a knack for drama being displayed on Beauty Reaps, an innate theatricality that makes it less of a labor than some of Tibet or Pearce’s more challenging works, though perhaps its rewards are made a little too obvious.
On this album the usually closely parallel lines of neofolk and industrial begin to cross paths, a stylistic turn that could perhaps be attributed to the contributions of Pearce, whose Death in June project has often brought martial rhythms and industrial aesthetics to his own neofolk vision. It’s a merging, or rather a collision that manages to be both coherent and tuned for maximum effect. Case in point: the blaring martial industrial collapse of Beauty Destroyed, a track that crashes into Tibet’s soliloquy like an air raid, all distorted noise and piercing trumpets bombing the melancholy tranquility of Tears for an Eastern Girl into rubble. And just like that, Cashmore’s fury spent, Skeletontonguedworld reconvenes the scattered flutes and fingerpicked guitars and digs Tibet’s dusty, histrionic stage whisper from the ruins, brushes it off and props it up again, more sickly sweet than ever. The role industrial plays on the album is often transitional, brief interludes looming or occasionally crashing unsettlingly between Cashmore and Tibet’s tracks, similar to the role played by the string and flute interludes dropped here and there between tracks, setting the stage for the songs that follow with a collapsing building or an interpretive dance, whatever the situation calls for.
So while Michael’s not breaking any molds or plumbing new depths with this collaboration, nor is he just blithely aping the style of his bandmates. Rather, like any good arranger, he’s taking the elements of his forebears and molding them into his own vision of the occult, the obscure and the depths of violence and ritual. And while his is a personality that doesn’t quite have the prophetic charisma of Tibet nor the defiant iconodoule unsettledness of Pearce, his knack for songwriting and an understanding of the importance of a good bomb blast in the midst of all the hippy cultist flute fellating once in a while just to keep things healthy makes Beauty Reaps the Blood of Solitude an excellent addition or introduction to the neofolk canon.