13 SIGNS: By Blood Alone.
Two straight weeks reviewing discs with nautical themes in their packaging and not a sea shanty to be found. These are strange days, indeed. Last week, Anna’s Ghost just seemed to like old-looking stuff, and the schooner (or some other big sailboat — I’m no boat buff) on their disc fit the bill. This week, By Blood Alone have “A Mediterranean Brigantine Drifting onto a Rock Coast in a Storm,” by 17th-century Dutch painter Willem van de Velde the Younger, gracing the cover of their Seas of Blood. The painting and record both are fairly epic.
Just as you’d be seriously remiss in skipping a chance to see van de Velde II's Baroque works at the Rijksmuseum during a jaunt through Amsterdam, so too should you take the opportunity to take a listen to By Blood Alone’s first full-length disc, an eight-track work spanning 50 minutes that offers a polished and original sound, mixing elements of progressive rock, goth, classical, and pop-rock to create a listenable and engaging series of seascapes.
BBA get much of their goth reputation from their look and lyrical themes, trading, too, on Cruella’s languid and fantastical delivery to lend a Romantic (like the artistic movement) feel to everything they do. They are neither as grim and mechanical as Skinny Puppy, however, nor as monotone and humorless as Depeche Mode’s darker days. Instead, they are often a little bit catchy, easy to sing along to, and when they do get aggressive and dark, it’s more in a Rush way than anything else.
They’ll even teach you a thing or two. Their opening “Serpentarius” gets out of the gate very prog, indeed, with John Graveside’s pin-point guitar tightly coordinated with the rhythm section of Jack Doran on bass and Runtt on drums. A 7:30-long ode to the mythical man who invented medical practice, and was thusly struck down by Zeus for depriving Hades of its residents, the song offers Cruella initially querying, “What’s the 13th sign?,” an allusion to the constellation Ophiuchus, Greek for Serpentarius, discovered by Ptolemy in the second century as one of 13 constellations through which the sun travels. The other 12 are astrological signs, but Ophiuchus was passed by in the mathematical desire for 12 to divide nicely into 360.
A keyboard line like a theremin from Jenny Williamson keeps the vibe mystical before the first major instrumental break, where layers of guitars repeat riffs in chord progressions. While "progressive" as a genre-describer can often just mean nerdy guys into mathematical music and lots of black, By Blood Alone hold true to prog’s basic ideal, also exemplified locally by the likes of Dreadnaught, to actually push contemporary music forward, and their mix of rhythms, keys, and sound levels is always intriguing.
(One other interesting note about Serpentarius: Galileo used the supernova that appeared inside its boundaries in 1604 to show that Aristotle was a dummy with that whole changeless-heavens argument. How’s that for progressive?)
The best thing about this disc is the variety of approaches the band employ, from the simple piano-and-Cruella opening to “Undead Friend” to the heavy grind of “Lovely Lies,” which quickly gives way to dream-like keyboards and Cruella turning singer/songwriter: “I told you once before, that I don’t want your love/Don’t hold me back, and then you fall to your knees/Begging me please to take you back into my heart.”