This project reflects more than the hundreds of invisible hours that go into creating a living representation of music that feels fresh and visceral. It is a snapshot of of the sadness, beauty, and triumph that comes from wrestling with outer monsters and inner demons.
From crew member Damien Stelter’s, “What the…” on “Discovery,” the opening track, it’s clear that this album is a musical family affair. In addition to Paul’s bass and vocals, Byrd’s guitars, Steve’s drums, and Matthew’s–well everything but the kitchen sink–we have Gusty on didgeridoo, as well as guest appearances by Kailin Yong, Tamra Hayden, and Gregg Hansen, three talented musicians featured on Mohr Fire’s Traditions Tartan and Tears CD.
The resulting Monster is alive with rich juxtapositions and vibrant sound.
“Andy Renwick’s Favourite Ferrret,” usually an early set invitation to fun at their live shows, brings all those long nights and summer dancing into your living room. Part of the studio’s magic is the element of otherwise impossibility–like hearing pipes and whistles at the same time on another live show favorite–the well wishing, “Forever Young.”
“Barbary Coast,” an Angus Mohr original, and one of their few love songs, is occasionally played live (their combined performance of it with the Tradition, Tartan, and Tears folks last May was an unforgettable experience). However, on Monster, the exquisite layering of instruments establishes a coastal soundscape for the lyrical narrative: “She came out of the fog in the night on the Barbary Coast…a vision a fantasy…she came into my life then took it away with her…I remember my life before the nights on the Barbary Coast…Maybe some day I’ll go back again.”
Fiddle and whistle solos unleash raw emotion against the tapestry of musically established tide. As it recedes, we’re left with with the poignant recognition that we couldn’t hold the magic or transcend the heartbreak, but at least our hearts beat to be broken and we touched bliss.
The theme is continued with the more down-to-earth, guitar driven, “Shady Grove” and given a lighthearted turn with “The Clumsy Lover,” an Angus thickened pipe tune that speeds faster and faster but for the four tempo changes that threaten to turn you into a clumsy dancer, if nothing else ;).
The song on this album that I most hoped for and feared to hear was “When Johnny Comes Marching Home.” I am delightfully familiar with the talent at Mohr Fire Studio, but how could “Johnny” be “Johnny” without the poised posture and anticipatory shouts of the other Angus Mohr regulars? The guys at Mohr Fire made it easy. Following a military march, interspersed with the opening whistle and Paul’s vocal, you hear the shouts and laughter of various members of the Angus Mohr family. It is, in many ways, like being there, making eye contact, and singing along in those few seconds before the song erupts, driving our frenzy before it.
The energy feeds into two folk-songs-turned-Angus-heavy of sacrificed youth and blood, “Step it Out Mary” and “Foggy Dew.” With the next two tracks, that social destruction turns personal. “Darkness Darkness” begins simply with Paul’s voice, acoustic guitar, and a few notes of piano. After the third verse, it breaks out. A fevered fiddle and bereft wail complement the Angus sound and pipe solo. Then the emotion takes a gritty turn with “Hurt.”
You may think that between the NIN and Johnny Cash versions, there’s no where for this song to go. Yet, from the slow intro of Matt’s voice set against stripped-down piano, drums, and guitar, it’s clear that there’s plenty more for this song to say. Sprinkled in lightly enough to make you ache are some of the prettiest fills I’ve ever heard Byrd play, and Steve’s drums drive the mood as the tempo shifts back and forth. This song belongs to Angus Mohr before the bag pipes even start–and when they do…well, we can all use a good cry like the one I had the first time it poured through my earbuds.
Though “All Along the Watchtower” doesn’t always make the festival set list, it’s played at every other show. Yet, the placement of the Dylan-by-way-of-Hendrix Angus Mohr staple positions it as the culmination or perhaps distillation of all the Monster’s themes. We have indeed “…been through that/and this is not out fate.” And even as the “wind begins to howl,” and we die into Byrd’s guitar solo and Matthew’s pipes, we’re reborn into the triumphant celebration that is “Scotland the Green.”
This Monster was well worth the wait.
It will soon be available in CD and download at various places, including the Angus Mohr store and CD Baby, but if I were you, I’d pick it up August 18th, at the Little Bear show. Get it signed, have a glass, and meet me on the dance floor for what promises to be yet another epic night.