Plumbiferous Media

Boy from Black Mountain – Beat Circus

Oct 1st 2009
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Boy from Black Mountain - Beat CircusBeat Circus
Boy from Black Mountain
Score: 83

Beat Circus, founded by Brian Carpenter in 2002, began as a highly experimental group focused mostly on instrumental music, with influences from everything between rock and circus music. Between their first and second albums, Beat Circus transformed significantly, taking on new aspects of country and Southern rock, and increasing the prominence of Carpenter’s vocals. Their third and newest album, Boy from Black Mountain, completes this transformation from Beat Circus’s beginning as strangely colorful music like the “Contortionist Tango” (from their first album, Ringleader’s Revolt) to the deeper, more reminiscent “Judgement Day” and “The Life You Save May Be Your Own” on their newest effort. It’s certainly a interesting change, and Boy from Black Mountain is all the more compelling for it.

Boy from Black Mountain contains an intriguing mix of instrumentals. Beginning with the vivid intro to “The February Train,” the album runs through various instrumental styles, from the bluegrassy stream running through “The Life You Save May Be Your Own” to the folk rock background of “Judgment Day” (which includes several electric strains as a sort of contrast to the rest of the track). Some tracks, such as “As I Lay Dying,” evoke the sound of a square dance with the incredible amount of energy they contain. Others, such as “Saturn Song,” are somewhat more subdued, but remain mostly interesting through the use of a well-orchestrated instrumental backing. Throughout Boy from Black Mountain, no matter the instrumental leaning of any specific track, the instrumental expertise of Beat Circus shines through brilliantly – with particular credit to an excellent violin, courtesy of Paran Amirinazari.

Following a slightly long (though certainly diverse) instrumental intro, Brian Carpenter’s rich vocals enter Boy from Black Mountain. From this early stage of the album, the down-home influence on Carpenter’s voice is clear – perhaps a bit of country or bluegrass, or something between the two. Carpenter lends the charisma of these musical styles to Beat Circus’s music, his voice serving as a powerful companion to the constantly active instrumentals, made even stronger by well-placed background vocalists. Occasional roughness creeps into Carpenter’s voice (as on “The Life You Save May Be Your Own”), helping to develop Beat Circus’s thoroughly traditional styling. However, from time to time throughout Boy from Black Mountain, the vocal line is swallowed up by the instrumentals, preventing the music from benefiting as greatly as it could from this integral (and powerful) element.

Beat Circus was initially formed as an entirely instrumental ensemble, but later developed their sound through the addition of vocals, allowing Carpenter’s gravelly vocals to gain well-deserved prominence among the music. Boy from Black Mountain is largely narrative, composed of stories told gruffly by Carpenter. In the second track “The Life You Save May Be Your Own,” which seems to be named after a short story by Flannery O’Connor, Carpenter intones: “Daddy had a red pickup / Loaded up the watermelons / And drove out to old Iron Mountain / Three hundred sixty-five miles to home – Bill Road / Every Sunday Momma said a prayer for the old man in the rocking chair / Called out to me and my brother / She said ‘Remember the life you save may be your own.'” Carpenter tells tales in this vein throughout Boy from Black Mountain, creating a sense of wonder while never leaving the realm of reality.

Boy from Black Mountain is mostly excellent, but suffers from slight issues in mixing. In some cases, certain sections, especially vocals, are more subdued than they really ought to be, leading to slightly messy tracks as backing instrumentals take center stage. For the most part, however, Beat Circus has done a good job combining the quite varied parts of their music so that they rarely clash – and are quite often very rewarding.

Beat Circus has done many things right with Boy from Black Mountain. Combining engaging vocals, entertaining vocals and interesting instrumentals, the band has created a largely laudable album. Unfortunately, occasional missteps with mixing prevent the album from being quite perfect. However, for the most part Boy from Black Mountain is a well-composed, inspired (and extremely stylized) album – and an excellent third release from Beat Circus.

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