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Stormcellar, Basilisk
The basilisk – a mythical serpent that will slay you where you stand if you dare to look it in the eye – is an intriguing concept for a Stormcellar album. This is a band whose songs are unafraid to look a few hard truths right in the face – the truths that crack our hearts open, or the ones we ignore at our peril in our late-capitalist fug. In looking at things how they are, front on, the songs on Basilisk keep us plugged into this nutty life, yet still upright and putting one foot after the other. It’s a very human journey; in fact, the album unfurls like a journey, or a film soundtrack, which is the way it’s designed to be listened to – from beginning to end, treading its path in one 35-minute hit.
Stormcellar’s rollicking blues core is always strong, but it’s only part of the pleasure here. Where there’s blues, it’s the tightly written kind, slugged with rock and roll, and with lyrics that are grounded in the stuff of contemporary life. ‘A Little Too Much’ kicks us off with a crunch of guitar and Michael Barry’s wailing blues harp. It’s a hand-clapping good time, impossible not to stomp to. (‘You can shake your egg and beat it’ – sure, have yourself a sexy omelette, why not?) It pairs perfectly with ‘I Wanna Get Next to You’ in capturing the fun that flesh-and-blood humans have with each other, this time with a growling refrain and a leave-no-doubts directness, not to mention Paul Read’s slide guitar all over it – building the tension and always in service to the song, never flying off on a self-indulgent whim.
‘Something to Go By’, with its country flavour, offers a quieter moment of connection, affecting and simple. ‘I don’t need to hear other people’s business’ – amen to that! ‘Hey Head in the Clouds’ is a sunny slice of optimism, punctuated by banjo and guitar (courtesy of the James Brothers) and cheerful harmonies; fingers crossed that it bolsters the confidence of its subject who has ‘lived a life less ordinary’. That’s another Basilisk theme: stepping outside the normal flow of things for a less-ordinary life, attuned to what is whispered in the darker corners.
It’s a theme that bubbles up in ‘We Will Not Be Forgotten’, as Skypta Vind’s electronic pulse anchors the otherworldly vocals that beam in ‘like a call from outer space’. A crackling comms link features on the brief ‘Running and Screaming’, which offers a warning from the other side (somewhere) – ‘Can’t say if we’re gonna survive / Be sure to smash that like and subscribe!’ Dropping bombs based on a millions thumbs-up doesn’t actually seem too far off, but let’s hope Stormcellar don’t win the award for best dystopian prediction any time soon.
The sweeping ‘Giants Fall’, with its tender cello motifs, is a worthy closer. ‘Go and break my heart’, one of the track’s repeated refrains, does what it says on the tin (i.e. beware the heartbreak, all ye unwary listeners), while the ending – ‘All I want is to forget myself’ – suggests how (regrettably) impossible that is.
Michael Barry’s vocals are as malleable as these songs, and he can deliver a vocal in a seemingly infinite number of modes: gruff, conversational, quiet, or with one eyebrow raised, but all of them seeking connection. Because the words are important here, and there’s meaning to be had on even the most fleeting listen. Lines like ‘Angry’s how you show you care’ (‘We Will Not Be Forgotten’) or ‘Chasing unicorns kinda wears me down’ (‘Something to Go By’) leap out, with the rest of their story filled out on repeated plays.
Just as important is what happens around every lyric – Paul Read’s slide guitar textured and affecting one minute, raucous and rowdy the next, and the unflappable rhythm of Theo Wanders underpinning it all (on the insistent, beautifully handled shuffle of ‘Fantasia on “Dreams of Better Days”’, for instance), no matter what musical cuisine is on the menu. Noel Little and Ben Halin on bass, and Paul Surany on guitar, are integral too, and the guest artists add depth, along with production that pushes at the edges of what these songs can do.
So if this is what happens when the basilisk tricks you into a staring contest, let’s have at it. Locking eyes with hard truths is risky, but it can be a hell of a good time too. And with Stormcellar as your guide, it’s a risk worth taking.
(Emma Driver, April 2024)