What follows is a true account. I have not falsely embellished my reactions nor am I waxing eloquent as a way to heighten the creative impact of the review. The Paper Chase’s God Bless Your Black Heart has simply knocked me flat on my ass. My productivity as a writer has ground to a halt in the last few months because this record has rendered all other records obsolete, and I am breaking my own self-imposed rule regarding the writing of a subjective, first-person review because I can no longer remain quiet about it. With each successive play, the record overwhelms me first with its introverted complexity, then with its relentless angst. As its tracks bleed into one another, its beauty and power unfold together, until finally I am gripped by a terror so specific that either my flight response is invoked, or I become a defeated, crumpled mass in the corner of the room.
How can I adequately pinpoint such terror? Consider your moment of disbelief when falling just far enough to realize you’re in mid-air before you make impact, or the seconds of rushed horror that paralyze you upon swallowing an extra big bite of food that gets lodged in your throat. John Congleton and the Paper Chase have produced a work constantly stationed on the brink of such unknown outcomes; God Bless Your Black Heart is the aural embodiment of a panic attack. In this case, the terror is inherent to a fatigued, middle-20-something frame of mind, when the joyous exploration of new life experiences has finally reached a plateau and a desperate restlessness is settling in. “Well, I’m 26 and time’s running out,” shrieks Congleton on “Ready, Willing, Cain and Able”, conveying an unsettlingly genuine fright. In fact, no single moment of the sentiment presented here feels false or posed, creating a unique and harrowing trip not intended for the weak of heart. By taking the basics of emo and elevating them into something fresh and disturbing, the Paper Chase have delivered one of the more complex, intricately-arranged productions in the history of angst rock, a sort of bastard offspring of Nine Inch Nails’ Pretty Hate Machine and Cursive’s “Butcher the Song”.
Congleton, very likely a genius but definitely not a singer, is tunelessly histrionic throughout the entire record, but his voice is an appropriate vessel of pain, matched against a sea of nails-on-chalkboard guitars, disharmonic strings, banging pianos, buzzing flies, laughter slowed and pitch-shifted to resemble a grunting animal feeding on your entrails, and drums either miked up or muffled to sound deathly and forboding. The awesome accomplishments in Congleton’s production cannot be overstated; the tracks are strung together by altered spoken samples, some of which continue to run underneath the multi-layered music, creating beds of sonic enhancement that always manage to elevate the songs rather than detract from them. The songs themselves are mostly variations on a couple of main themes, plus a somewhat clichéd carnival waltz that crescendos into derangement (“The Sinking Ship, the Grand Applause”) and a handful of atmospheric segues that secure the album’s coherence. The overall composition is impressive enough to merit comparisons to Brian Wilson’s recently completed Smile, though nowhere near as palatable.
Kicking off with a manifesto (“I want your head / I want your wicked parts / I want to wring out your evil thoughts / I want to eat out your bitter heart”), Congleton begins his descent into savagery. The subsequent “One Day He Went Out for Milk and Never Came Home” acts as the central musical focus of the record, featuring a guitar lick akin to Guns N’ Roses’ “Sweet Child o’ Mine” after a couple of speedballs and a whole lot of beer. The entire record becomes gradually more saturated with a curious dose of gothic southern Bible belt tradition, and colloquial language is therefore strewn throughout, culminating in “Let’s Be Bad, Henry, Let’s Be Really Bad”, which appears to be almost entirely composed of Nick Cave song titles and references. The tune is also a slight echo of the slowed-down melody of “Milk”, backed by a mourning chorus of ghostly, synthesized voices rather than spastic guitars. Following the evangelical ranting of a preacher discussing the inevitability of death, “Milk” is then officially reprised in “Abby, You’re Going to Burn for What You’ve Done to Me,” at which point Congleton concludes, “I’ll see your head upon a pole.” His manifesto is fulfilled. All of this is appropriately supported by the album art, a series of domestic photos in which some of the subjects have missing heads.
In all likelihood, kids and younger adults may not completely understand the depth of this angst, while those who have long since surpassed it may find it too dramatic or trivial. And having recently weathered such darker times myself, I do not often wish to relive them. However, the kind of genius vision of which some artists are capable is on rare display here. Likeminded bands might consider seeking out Congleton to produce them, but in the end, God Bless Your Black Heart becomes a record that I cannot recommend to anyone, and yet everyone should hear.
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