Black Angel Drifter by Black Angel DrifterRelease date: September 30, 2016
Label: Bastard Recordings
More of a project than a band, Black Angel Drifter is Anne Gilpin and Robert ‘Hacker’ Jessett of London alt-country band Morton Valence’s side project and the intention is that this, their debut full-length, will also be the only album released under that moniker.
The band naturally shares many elements with Morton Valence; the cinematic sweep of the music, the country and blues elements and the voices of the two singers, but this is a darker album, more flamboyant and theatrical but also grittier and more primitive. Starting as it means to go on, with the spaghetti western, reverb-laden ‘Skylines Change/Genders Blur’, it’s a deliciously noisy melange of Morricone, Link Wray, the Bad Seeds, Across Tundras and the Cowboy Junkies. The elements (especially the use of crowd noise/inaudible dialogue in the background) work together perfectly, but really it’s the contrast between Hacker’s huskier-than-usual drawl and Anne Gilpin’s languorous croon – far more stylized than on their usual work – that brings it to life. Cementing the cinematic quality is an underlying chirp of crickets permeating the whole album, audible even during the songs, in their quieter moments.
‘Black Eyed Susan’ is a moody narrative piece with a ‘Riders on the Storm’ flavour, while ‘Sister Pain’ is a dramatic, bluesy chant with huge reverb-laden guitars that feels like Henry’s Dream-era Nick Cave recorded in a canyon and turned up to eleven. Sirens and strummed acoustic guitars open the melancholy ballad ‘The Visit’, a showcase for Anne Gilpin’s less theatrical, more folk-inflected tones, played for maximum contrast against Hacker’s broken, melancholy croak. It’s a brilliantly atmospheric piece of music, but not the strongest song of the album. Luckily – and somewhat unexpectedly – their cover of Bob Dylan’s ‘Man In The Long Black Coat’ from his 89 return-to-form Oh Mercy is a masterful piece of cowboy melodrama which couldn’t fit the album better. ‘If I Could Start Again’, a very likeable parched and regret-laden ballad, has, strangely, more of a typically Dylanesque delivery than ‘Man In The Long Black Coat’ (as well as some echoes of Leonard Cohen), given a strange flavour by Hacker’s occasionally pleasantly jarring English-accented vocals.
‘Trail of Tears’, an almost purely atmospheric protracted sigh, fades in in a haze of melancholy buzzing and cracked, almost whispered vocals and hints at, but never quite settles into, a conventional waltz-time country song. Instead, it’s drowned in swathes of echo and unexpectedly crashing percussion care of Taiko’s Chizuru Nukui. More substantial is ‘Lead On Take It Away’, an actual waltz-time country ballad, which channels the sound of Orphans-era Tom Waits brilliantly and includes the most affectingly desolate vocal performances on the album as well as an enjoyably woozy brass section with thunderous percussion and a guest calliope; it’s lovelier than something this noisy has any right to be. The album drifts to a close with ‘Hymn Four’, an appropriately ethereal affair that sounds almost like a female fronted, country version of Spiritualized with spectral harmonica and beautifully swelling pedal steel guitar.
In some ways it’s a shame to make this album a one-off – it has a very different, even if perhaps narrower, appeal to Morton Valence’s music – but at the same time, limiting the band to this one outing could be a masterstroke. It’s a beautifully realised, but very strongly-flavoured world of its own that it would be a shame to dilute by repetition – or to wear out by overdoing it. And as it is, Black Angel Drifter has just the right amount of excess.