The Black Heart Procession’s sixth full-length is, as you might expect, moody, gothic and quivering with existential dread, a dark-toned graze through waltz-time piano ballads, twitchy, slouching, tamped down guitar rock and eerily keening musical saws. Its tenderest song, “Drugs,” observes the circling-down-the drain-resolution of a love for an addict. Its most propulsive cut, “Suicide,” considers the upside of ending it all. Images of heaven, hell and the devil lurk in a good plurality of the songs (god is less prominent). Yet, like 2007’s Spell, Six is prone, at the most unlikely moments, to spontaneously burst out of its downer straightjacket and rock out, with the abyss-staring intensity of the Gutter Twins or Wovenhand. (I’d add Nick Cave if BHP had even the slightest sense of humor.)
Six’s name harks back to the first three numbered Black Heart Procession albums, the records where Pall Jenkins and Tobias Nathaniel worked out a sparse and echoey aesthetic. In subsequent albums, they collected a small group of musical collaborators, but here with Six it’s mostly just the two of them, switching among instruments. The result is, perhaps, a paring down, a simplicity, but not exactly a sparseness. The best and most immediately memorable songs here – “Witching Stone,” “Rats,” “Forget My Heart” and, especially, “Suicide” – ratchet up the tension with terse, clamped down guitar lines. “Witching Stone” has an almost pop feel, its ominous down-slanting strums smoldering under a singable, melodic chorus. “Rats,” with its slithery, sulpherous bass line and sudden crashes of guitar, evokes the aimless anxiety of wandering insomnia. “Suicide,” the best of the three, flashes synth tones like signals of danger ahead, repetitive throbs pulsing from one speaker to another like a heartbeat pushing to arrhythmia. Tense with threat, glowering with suppressed feeling, the cut is sleek and menacing and utterly compelling.
Slower songs are interspersed in and among these rockers, providing variation, but not exactly a rest. The intensity here is of a different sort, a slow waltz around death and broken love, embellished, often as not, by squeals of bowed saw. Opener “When You Finish Me” starts with a music box’s twinkle of piano arpeggios and Jenkins’ chilling baritone (shadowed in some ghostly mic-altered way by either himself or Nathaniel). It sounds like a lullaby, except that the lyrics are completely without light or hope, an involuntary shiver embedded in verses like “just get rid of me, just drain me, don’t look for me.” It ends, like all lullabies should, with the phrase “Just close your eyes,” but there is no real hope of morning here.
Intense and moving throughout, Six builds a fair amount of variation into its downbeat aesthetic. The harder songs may hit you first, but the soft ones work like poison, slowly. Listen a few times, and you’re not going to forget either anytime soon.