Mikelangelo and the Black Sea Gentlemen: Journey Through the Land of Shadows (2005)

Mikelangelo and the Black Sea Gentlemen: Journey Through the Land of ShadowsThis is an older review of mine, presented here for archival purposes. The writing is undoubtedly different to the present, and the review style may differ between publications. Enjoy, if that’s the right word.

Additional note: Jesus, is this a long review. There’s some video throughout to ensure you don’t die before reaching the end. 

Since forming in 2000, Mikelangelo And The Black Sea Gentlemen have been gathering accolades for their superlative, part fairy-tale, part cabaret, part cautionary huckstering live performance. Playing a number of festivals worldwide – including the Edinburgh Fringe Festival – they’ve honed their approach and reeled in punters with an ear for the more curiously strait-laced (in a completely Victorian, bodices-and-waistcoats kind of way) side of the gypsy-folk spectrum. And with this, their second independently-produced album, they’ve finally managed to capture the stage magic that has made them famous.

Journey Through The Land Of Shadows is the sort of album that begs to be sold with a monocle. Images of mustachio’d brutes and astrakhan caps play through the mind upon hearing the band’s songs. It’s evocative and emotive, and is relentlessly not of our time. That’s its thematic appeal – it’s so foreign, so bizarre that it immerses completely.

Musically, there’s a lot to link the band with Tom Waits, perhaps the most obvious exponent of the good that tacking a bit of weirdness into your music can do. More specifically, the music on disc would fit into The Black Rider, the Waits album that accompanied a stage collaboration of the same name. Particularly, ‘Clarinet Interlude’ and

‘The Eye Of The Storm’, small instrumental interludes, are particularly close to Waits’ incidental music. Elsewhere, the brilliantly percussive ‘The Wandering Song’ owes a spiritual debt to Raindogs’ ‘Singapore’ – all foot stamps and piratical la la-la-la la backing vocals, and a surprisingly familiar bass riff.

So I wandered to a place sometime long ago I knew
A place that we all know but only tell a precious few
Moored upon its shores a ship, on its deck the crew
Their faces are familiar – their eyes are glazed with glue
I wonder where this ship would go, if I shot the crew?

(At which point, three taps on a snare echo shots. Simple, percussive narration.)

Of course, this should not be taken as inferring that the band is a rip-off. They’re writing in that same big-hearted gypsy-folk vein as Waits, to the point that this album’s ‘This Broken Dream’ is a song so gorgeous that it demands a cover by the gruff vocalist. With its melancholy, entwining melodies, it’s a distressingly beautiful, setting-sun-through-Venetians moment that it’s hard to not get swept up in.

The shackles of this life
Have left me hiding in the dark
Like some mangy beast.
The torture of this life
Has left me cowering
Like some poor beaten child.
Still, I hope
Still, I believe
There is a way
Out of this broken dream.

Truly, a grand weeper, very much in the vein of Waits’ writing on Alice.

The UK band The Tiger Lillies might be a better reference-point for the band. That group’s use of Victoriana and highly theatrical presentation is pretty close to what it is I think that Mikelangelo and his Gentlemen are attempting to do. There’s no sense of the creators here as ordinary blokes – they’re all either vagabonds or scoundrels, or great lovers. Their group functions on the suspension of disbelief, on the injection of some forgotten – though not outmoded – magic into music. Songs of horrible travails, of sea journeys, of the Devil stalking the streets are their stock-in-trade, and to pull them of effectively, they demand that you take them as they present themselves: eccentrics, cads, and ultimately heart-on-sleeve men of genteel distinction. It’s a bold move, and one that few bands can manage without sounding like rip-offs. But by God, these guys have done it.

For the album, the four core band members – baritone vocalist Mikelangelo, clarinettist The Great Muldavio, violinist Rufino The Catalan Casanova and Baron Von Babyface, the fearsome contrabassman – are joined by a number of different musos, including those on musical saw, piano accordion and trumpet. Elsewhere, an orchestra turns up – backing the wondrously over-the-top Rufino on ‘Things Will Never Be The Same’, a tune Maurice Chevalier would kill for. All the while, the standard musical weapons of the band – accordion, piano, glockenspiel, tin whistle, jaw harp, mandolin and the like – create a soundscape that sounds particularly Eastern European, albeit one that’s been captured on a wax cylinder, a sort of musical time-capsule.

A range of musical styles are touched upon throughout the album. There’s an almost-gospel vocalise in ‘The Dead Men Rise At Dawn’, while ‘El Diablo’ smoulders on in a style that’s at once Latino, smooth jazz, and experimental sawing. ‘A Formidable Marinade’ is straight klezmer sneakiness, while Figueras (with guest vocalist Anushka, The Russian Princess – who sounds for all the world like the Emcee from Cabaret) offers shades of sleepy Spain. There are stompers, weepers and sing-along tunes, and it really serves to add a sense of propulsion to the proceedings. In addition, almost every song features a Gentlemen’s chorus. Seriously, there’s more homage to the art of the barbershop quartet going on here than I’ve heard in a while, and there’s nothing more effective in communicating either upstanding goodness or bastardly dastardliness. Every “bom” and “la” is thankfully free of any sense of tongue-in-cheek irony, and as such renders such vocalisations delightful.

The album is structured in two acts, underscoring the theatrical nature of the excursion. It’s certainly easy to pick which is the more perverse side, as the tone darkens considerably from ‘The Eye Of The Storm’ until its conclusion. ‘El Diablo’ slinks on with its tale of faceless devils, of lungs filled with sand, of creeping death, but of particular note is ‘The Carnival Goes On All The Same’. It starts lugubriously:

Life was mild and it was meek.
When it was not as sour as kraut
It was sweet.
Things rolled on and turned on and churned on
Like the wheels of some old ice-cream machine.
We never noticed what was approaching.
We were to numb to see that our eggs were a-poaching.

Before really heating up. The song goes on to mention some kind of spiritual mistral, a malaise blowing through life with the sound of a lark that has fallen one too many times from its tree. By the time the eight-minute tune comes to its end, there’s a Zorba-style maelstrom in progress, with lyrics that testify to the continuing nature of the carnival of life. (Hairy-chinned wives are mentioned, and larks sing prodigiously throughout.)

The tune on the album that perhaps captures best what the band’s on about, though, is ‘A Formidable Marinade’. Opening with its tale of creepy enchantment in a Turkish bath, the song progresses to a murderous close – but not without invoking one of the most memorable choruses ever:

Sodomy is not just for animals
Human flesh is not just for cannibals
I’ll feast on your body if you feast on mine
Blood is thicker and redder than wine
Lay ourselves out upon the table
Ravish each other ‘til we’re no longer able
When juices mix in the heat of the fray
It will make a formidable… marinade.

Clarinets sinuously slide through the tune and Bernard Herrman-like violin slashes punctuate while Mikelangelo’s strikingly deep, affecting voice tells of a lust taken to unnatural extremes. By which I mean a desire taken to the point of spit-roasting your lover and climbing inside to be close and to dream. The most important vision he sees there? Men who live on only remorse, a line emphasised so effectively by the manly chorus of the rest of the Gentlemen, who end this klezmer-themed tune with the most stentorian, brilliant round of la-la-ing you’ll hear this year. It’s thoroughly addictive, possibly because there’s pretty much nobody else pulling off this kind of thing with such balls… and such aplomb.

Throughout the length of the album, there’s a couple of little vocal tales from two guys billed only as Laslo andJosef. They tell stories of duck calls, of escapes, of travel and general arsing about, in deepest, deepest accents. Their anecdotes form a sort of vocal signpost for the listener, and lead nicely into ‘The Great Muldavio’, a dockside spoken word track in which the group’s clarinettist speaks of his history thus;

“How comes a man by a name?” you ask, with a curiosity shallow
You wish for a simple anecdote – a trifle
An entertainment for you and your fellows.
Very well.

It’s a nice interlude, and is perhaps the most obvious reference to the stage life of the group. Of course, Laslo or Josef end the disc, talking about playing music with combs, the pianoforte, Good Morning Vietnam and animal balls as an accordion plays in the background. It gives the feeling, particularly strongly, that somehow all that’s passed in the last hour of music has been a momentary daydream, some kind of muzzy musing, and now you’re jolted back to reality by the voices of old men in a market. It’s a nice way to bring the listener back to reality, and pretty much emphasises the fact that this is a disc that’s conceived as an experience, not just as background music.

As you’d imagine, this isn’t really a disc that lends itself to casual listening. The lyrical cleverness of Mikelangelo – quite aside from the often grin-inducing blend of almost archaic styles – is something that rewards close attention. There are subtle undercurrents on the disc both musical and lyrical, and while it’s certainly closer to music hall or Gilbert & Sullivan light operetta than many listeners these days would be used to, they’re hiding there, just waiting for you to discover them. There are moments of pure over-the-top vocal emotiveness – I’m looking at you, Rufino! – but everything here is played so straight that it’s difficult not to get sucked into the world of pipe smoke and flickering gaslight of the band.

The quality of the disc – and indeed the performances – is pretty high. If one compares the version of ‘A Formidable Marinade’ that rests on the band’s website – the best place to grab this disc – with the one that’s laid on disc, the increased darkness, the improved grasp on theatricality is particularly noticeable. This is an album which has a quality that is, I think, the result of its independent production. There’s a more matured sound here, also: earlier songs sounded a little too close to artists like Waits, whereas now that’s less prevalent. The band’s sound is complete and its own, though there’s an undoubted tip of the fez to other artists on the way. It can safely be said that the sound is unique, and seems to – at least on this record – be fully-formed, and (despite the theatrical conceit for the whole thing) unforced and naturalistic.

The cover of the disc – also produced by Mikelangelo, so rumour has it – fits into the scheme of things beautifully. Watercolour fish skeletons bedecked with top hats dance on in a hallucinogenic break from darkness. Demons in party hats dance around in a circle. Childhood becomes something horribly perverse, yet cute. Juggling, youthful enthusiasm and naive art come together as one, and though it may appear a little too close to Leunig for some tastes – I can’t stand the bloke, myself – it’s somehow incredibly apt. The portraits inside, thankfully, show the band in suitable garb – no illusion-destroying tracky-dacks here.

Journey Through The Land Of Shadows is a rare album, and should be cherished as such. At times, there’s a little too much greasepaint-smeared enthusiasm, but Mikelangelo And The Black Sea Gentlemen should be congratulated for larding the album with so much of their souls. Music like this doesn’t come along very often and – like other moreish ephemera; a fine smoking jacket, a carved wooden fetish or a delightful pair of ornate pince-nez – it should be hoarded when it does. This is a thoroughly delightful, unashamedly melancholic, stomp-around-the-room-drunk sort of album, the kind that stays close.

And the Gentlemen all sing…

First published on FasterLouder in June 2005. I still enjoy the work of Mikelangelo, in all his iterations – though there’s some newer albums I haven’t seen yet. A couple of gigs along from this and there seemed to be a lot more burlesque types at his gigs. I like the idea and the approach Mikelangelo has, and always feel like I should listen to his albums more when I pull ’em out. 

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