Drear leaders

The Black Heart Procession stick to the low road
By MATT PARISH  |  October 27, 2009

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SWEET DREAD: Drawing inspiration from Herrmann and Penderecki, Black Heart procession maintain a foggy noir vibe.
On the Black Heart Procession’s first visit to Boston, back in ’98, the duo hunched on chairs at the Middle East downstairs surrounded by equipment — keyboards, guitars, a musical saw, an array of percussion. They looked more like Foley artists than a band, rarely glancing up, slowly reaching for instruments as passages in their ethereal music faded away on invisible cues.

No surprise, then, that Tobias Nathaniel is a big fan of old soundtrack music like the tense, otherworldly accompaniments to Psycho and The Day the Earth Stood Still. “I really love Bernard Herrmann,” he says over the phone from the group’s headquarters in San Diego. “I also love [Krzysztof] Penderecki, who was eventually used in parts of The Shining.” These burgeoning interests led him to recent bouts of digging into the war-torn cacophony of 20th-century Eastern European composers, from Béla Bartók to Alfred Schnittke. “I really just love stark music that hits me somewhere.”

Nathaniel’s songwriting partnership with Pall Jenkins is rooted in dark æsthetics. The Black Heart Procession — who play the Paradise on Tuesday — have just released the seasonally appropriate brooder 6 (their sixth album and their first for Brooklyn’s Temporary Residence). There’s no screeching violins or stacked orchestral dissonance, but the band maintain a foggy noir vibe throughout — and it’s their creepiest work yet.

After spending a few years exploring full-band sounds on The Spell and Amore del Tropico (both on Touch and Go), Nathaniel and Jenkins whittled themselves back down to a duo. Drummer Joe Plummer got wrapped up in Modest Mouse stuff, and their violin and bass players got busy with the Album Leaf. So, as in the early days, the pair holed up in their San Diego home studio with a comfortably bleak blank slate. “At its core, we know that the spirit of the Black Heart Procession comes from Pall and me working out ideas together in a room. The process is fairly juvenile — ‘That’s dumb. That’s dumber. This is the dumbest part yet.’ But we know what sounds good, and it gets there.”

Opener “When You Finish Me” crawls out with misty pianos and a gravelly mantra of self-dissolution from Jenkins: “I took your poison to see how you suffer.” Organs groan and guitars scuttle past like insects in an empty warehouse. In spots, a rock outfit almost emerges, with the chilly cabaret of “All My Steps” and the disaffected lounge guitar of “Forget My Heart” coming close to ’80s Marc Ribot–era Tom Waits. Dark specters of Nick Cave’s “Red Right Hand” creep in throughout.

But those moments are fleeting — the disembodied moan of the musical saw and the unreal, dovetailing tracks of Jenkins’s voice wipe away your sense of the group as much of anything but shadowy figures behind a curtain. Closer “Iri Sulu” sounds lifted straight off their muffly debut from 11 years ago, everything ricocheting down canyons of reverb that might as well be their trademark.

“More than anything, we focus on space in songs,” says Nathaniel. “That’s sort of the Black Heart sauce. We treat it like an instrument, sometimes paying more attention to that than anything else.”

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