Click to hear: “The Land We All Believe In”
Cerberus Shoal’s new album, released today, is the best record this South Portland-based collective has produced since it formed a decade ago. Taken as a whole, it’s by far the most melodic, composed, and tuneful Shoal offering in their bizarre discography.
Which is not to say The Land We All Believe In isn’t creepy as hell. It is, and then some. It fact, it’ll make a great Halloween record, sure to scare the crap out of parents and kids alike. Just hope Homeland Security doesn’t come knockin’, because this is also a very political album. Suffice it to say Bush didn’t win the Shoal vote, and I suspect Kerry didn’t do so hot, either.
The six songs here could be six parts of an avant-garde political puppet show, complete with encore. The addition of writer Karl Greenwald to the Shoal line-up a couple years ago has brought a strong – and quite twisted — dramatic element to the group’s work, plus a whole lot more lyrics. With this album, it sounds like the rest of the band has fully realized how best to match those words to its remarkable music.
The last full-length the band recorded, 2003’s Chaiming the Knoblessone, was ultimately too far out for its own good, too difficult to listen to with any frequency. The Land is a pop record, by comparison.
Originally an all-male affair, Cerberus Shoal now has two women in the group, Colleen Kinsella and Erin Davidson, and their voices weave together beautifully, even when things get weird. Which they do. A lot.
Chriss Sutherland also sings, as he has since the beginning, and he’s never sounded stronger. Or weirder. His turn on “Wyrm” sounds like a fervent chant sung in half English-half Aramaic. Meanwhile, the group pounds and saws away at what sounds like a Sufi jam session held in a construction zone. Four minutes in, things really get crazy.
Davidson and Kinsella are a great pairing in the band, but it’s also got two top-notch drummers/percussionists on this album: Shoal vet Tom Rogers and Tim Morin, late of Vacationland. The group’s intricate, trance-inducing rhythms have always been a hallmark and strong point. Double that for this record.
Caleb Mulkerin plucks a lot of banjo on this album, and Kinsella squeezes an eerie accordion, giving much of The Land the feel of old-timey American music gone awry in a Middle Eastern sonic context – again, a fine compliment to the subject matter.
The strongest song on here is “The Ghosts Are Greedy,” a 15-minute acid trip in several movements. Kinsella and Davidson’s voices twirl around one other to fantastic effect in the first third; Greenwald channels William S. Burroughs in the middle “Dr. Drano needs you … mentally”; and the band takes it out in a gorgeous shimmer of pop, replete with swells of what sounds like Hawaiian pedal steel.
Who knows what all was twanged and banged on this densely textured record – I swear I heard a kitchen sink in “Wyrm.” The band recorded once again with Scott Colburn, mostly at Bandsaw Studios in Bayside. The sound quality is excellent, as is the album artwork by (as usual) Kinsella, in collaboration with Greenwald.
If you’ve read this far, and you’re new to the band, you should also know that for all its riches, The Land will most likely leave you cold. This is cerebral stuff, largely devoid of emotion save rage and a certain weary despair.
But don’t blame the band for this. Their Land is our land, too: the album is dedicated to “All the Folks residing in The Land We All Believe In.” Cerberus Shoal deserve credit for pointing out the inconvenient fact we’re trapped in a nightmare. Be careful what you believe, and as they implore on the CD tray card, “…be good.”
— Chris Busby