You’re sitting in a dimly lit, prototypically European pub, located in Prague sometime in the middle of the 20th century. An old man is spinning tales for an increasingly enthralled and growing audience. His story hearkens back to 1913 and tells a complex weave of storylines that center around a schavager (a street sweeper with a keen eye for reading people’s stories in their appearances), a perpetual bride, and the pack of strange and warped bachelors who woo her. The story is sad, but not bleak. Rather, it is filled with a pathos that finds a voice through each character, expressing multiple variations of isolation, distance, and the stunted possibilities of love. As the story concludes, you realize that the old man telling the tale is the schavager of the tale itself, and in his personal history and its observations, a great lesson about love has been passed along.
This is how Sam Rosenthal, the primary force behind black tape for a blue girl, wants you to feel as you listen to the “band”‘s latest offering, The Scavenger Bride. It’s a pure concept album that remains true to . . . well, the concept. Pushing beyond the boundaries of one song, black tape turns their whole album into a single story, and does so in such a way that even the album alone cannot contain the whole tale. In a bold move, the album insert itself contains more pieces to the puzzle of the story, including poems and scraps of character “dialogue” that don’t appear on the album, although they may, at time, correspond to the mood of certain instrumental pieces. Despite the risks of such a technique, the concept’s invitation to read more deeply than the music echoes the story of the schavager and the bride itself.
True to the gothic style which black tape emerges from, The Scavenger Bride merges art and artifice, fashion and history, music and artifice into an emotive tangle. At its best, it produces a dark and mysterious beauty, and at its worst, it produces a palpable pretension, an ultra-seriousness that at times appears forced and comical. It’s an album for coffee shop wraiths who diligently fling art theory and lingo at one another in an attempt to impress by confusion.
Yet, for all this, black tape actually turns out an impressive achievement in this disc. Long known for their place at the front of the darkwave movement in goth music, an eclectic mix of electronic ambient and new age music that follows more from Brian Eno than anything, and which concentrates more on mood textures than pop song structures, black tape has made an important leap forward with The Scavenger Bride. In combination with the spooky and ethereal atmospherics of darkwave, black tape has more and more begun to incorporate neo-classical instrumentation and composition into their work. First unveiled on their prior album, Remnants of a Deeper Purity, this style is fully realized on The Scavenger Bride adding a depth of texture and auditory sensation that helps maintain the complicated story laid over the music.
The use of flute, cello, piano, violin and viola give the pieces of this puzzle a classicism that places the story in its context. Inspired by and including pieces of the works of Franz Kafka, as well as Marcel Duchamp’s famous cubistic painting “The Bride Stripped Bare By Her Bachelors, Even”, The Scavenger Bride‘s tale begs for such a European, classical approach. Broad and expansive keyboard washes mingle with mournful strings to provide the emotional touchstone for the vignettes of each character, and in doing so these songs share a tradition with much older forms of music.
Although certain pieces can be picked out for their uniqueness, including the shifts and contrasts of “Like a Dog / Letter to Brod”, or the siren-like dirge of “All My Lovers”, it really makes very little sense to speak of these songs as individual pieces. Even the track ordering seems to be based more on the necessity of progression than on the music, as songs bleed into each other, and the instrumentation on both the lyrical and instrumental pieces transforms from one thing to another before the number on the CD player changes. Rather, like a symphony, it’s one continuous experience and really can only be spoken about as a whole work.
As a work, The Scavenger Bride succeeds on a combination of execution and ambition. It’s not a simple album by any means, and its complexity gives credit to the thought and craft that went into its formation. Where it falters in high modern seriousness, it also succeeds in imbuing a certain grace, a broken beauty, to a tale that is inscrutable but engaging. Both for black tape for a blue girl and the goth/darkwave scene in general, The Scavenger Bride is a highwater mark achievement that speaks volumes to the possibilities of intelligence and artistry in music.