Last year I was fortunate enough to fall in love with Lasher Keen‘s entrancing stage show and their deliberately ambitious Mantic Poetry, Oracular Prophecy. The otherworldly and timeless sounds they captured on this album delighted my imagination upon first listen and still manage to take my mind and heart elsewhere when revisited. The band has recently completed work on another album, The Middle Kingdom, which is actually the musical accompaniment for a theatrical performance written by Lasher Keen’s endless conduit of creative energy, Dylan Sheets. How the man and band were capable of releasing two albums in less than a year and putting together a stage performance to pair with the more recent album is beyond my understanding, but the fact that this is fully formed and captivating is evidence enough of a true passion. For possibly the first time in my “career” as a writer, I feel that Sheets himself better describes the album’s influences and aspirations than I could, so before I dissect this as a piece of music, I will share the thoughts of its creator:
“The Middle Kingdom is based upon the Irish myth called Tochmarc Etaine or, “The Wooing Of Etain”. It is preserved in the early 12th century “Lebor na hUidre”, yet was recorded in the language of the 8th century. I was inspired to bring this more obscure of Irish myths to light after delving into the poetry & dramatic works of W.B. Yeats. In an effort to continue Yeats’ noble safeguarding of Ireland’s epics, “The Middle Kingdom” is also intended as a theatrical play, combining bardic storytelling, music, acting & dance. This marks the first of what I hope will be many mythically enduring tales brought once more to life with the spark of creative fire & the distilled essence of poetry rooted deep within the ancestral soil. In so being roused & inspirited by the works of Yeats, I heartfully dedicate this record to his lasting memory.”
So, with the subject matter briefly explained (and more thoroughly summarized in the link I added to his commentary), it’s obvious that Lasher Keen’s habit of adding a slightly modern edge to important pieces of the past is alive and well here, possibly in a form that is more appealing than ever before. At fifty-two minutes in length, The Middle Kingdom is no brief run, yet the pacing of the songs makes it feel like a breeze, especially when compared to the 90 minutes of Mantic Poetry, Oracular Prophecy. With a shorter run-time and a long story to tell, just as much of the narrative is told in sound as it is in the lyrics.
The album’s lush opener, “Children of the Sun,” immediately stands out, sounding both familiar and oddly modern with its heavy use of a grand piano. However, on an album ripe with ballads, the mournful and earthen nature of this instrument leads the band along, keeping the listener’s focus on the tale being spun as opposed to the cosmic reaches of prior efforts. Another new direction this song takes is the use of a choir, which partakes in wonderfully coordinated call and response with Sheets as the narrator. It lends itself well to the heft of the music as an album and will likely translate beautifully for live performance. That’s not to say that this album wants for psychedelia or meandering stretches of stringed beauty; songs like “Castle of the Crystal Swans” are as whimsical and fantastical as anything else the band has offered up in the past, meandering through the realms of dream and waking. Another piece of note is the jolting, upbeat number “Red Eared Oxen of Unbridled Fame,” which sees inventive percussion and Sheets’ wailing voice bouncing off each other to great effect, displaying a playful nature that many other folksy bands seem to have lost somewhere along the way.
The band’s form has its components all intact, with the delightful lilt of Sheets guiding the listener’s emotions simply by the wavering of his voice, while strings and soft percussion often build an ornate tapestry beneath his voice. It often goes unnoticed at first glance, but the growing beauty becomes unavoidable at times, which is exactly how it should be. Playful jaunts are welcome here, as are mournful ballads of longing and uncertainty. It is the seamless telling of the story that makes this more than just a collection of short pieces informing the reader of the story’s skeleton. The interludes tickle the imagination and the narrator’s asides to the audience at the album’s ending bring it all together as a true homage to the oral history of such tales.
While the album could be described at greater length, I do feel it is a journey best experienced rather than dictated in a critical fashion. I would instead prefer to add a few notes about the stage show and the album’s release. The cast of the play includes the members of Lasher Keen, accompanied by Fiona Gaia (daughter of Lasher Keen’s Sheets and Bluebird Gaia) as the leading role of Etain, with Sleepytime Gorilla Museum mastermind Nils Frykdahl playing the male lead of Midir. Musical accompaniment will be provided by both an adult choir as well as a children’s choir, with the aid of multi-instrumentalists Leonna Sapphire and James Word. The show sounds like it will be quite the spectacle (and the cast is much larger, I simply haven’t the space here to list each member) and will likely be recorded to DVD for those of us unable to attend a performance.
In addition to this show, the band will be releasing the album on CD at these performances and vinyl pre-orders will go up shortly as well. The album itself is a journey worth taking, and features Sheets’ first piece of art to grace a Lasher Keen cover. Whether you loved the last one or felt slightly overwhelmed by its length and scope, I hope you will find yourself under their spell while listening to The Middle Kingdom. Need enticement? Lasher Keen has graciously allowed me to lead you on the first few steps of this grand adventure by debuting “Children of the Sun” here on Black Metal & Brews. Open your mind and unlock what is inside. EDIT: Since the date of posting, the band has uploaded this album to their bandcamp page. Enjoy it streaming in full below. I’ve removed my soundcloud link since it would be redundant, although folks who listen through my soundcloud can still find it on my account.