Beat Circus: Boy from Black Mountain

Photo: Dave Bias

You are left with a memory of thrills and spills, daring and speculation, worlds visited and obstacles overcome. Beat Circus have provided one of the highs of the year.

Beat Circus

Boy from Black Mountain

Label: Cuneiform
US Release Date: 2009-09-29
UK Release Date: 2009-09-28
Label Website
Artist Website

Boy from Black Mountain is the third Beat Circus album and the second part of bandleader Brian Carpenter's "Weird American Gothic" trilogy. If that phrase brings to mind the "old weird America" that Greil Marcus has written about, then the connection is justified. Carpenter's music finds resonance with the Band's carnival aesthetic via a combination of eclectic instrumentation, vaudeville styles, and narratives about circus and carnival life. There are numerous hints of the "invisible republic" that Marcus identified in the Band's music and in the early hillbilly and race records collected on Harry Smith's Anthology of American Folk Music.

Like Smith, Carpenter is equally drawn to the avant-garde as he is to the old, rural, and gothic. He has interests in free jazz and improvised music, film directing, and radio broadcasting, and seeks ways to connect these interests into a wide vision. Under the Beat Circus name, Carpenter has produced skewed circus music that trace lineages between Congo Square jazz, the music of the medicine shows, and Balkan brass. If the idea of circus suggests a bringing together of disparate spectacles in one site, then this group's music lives up to its name. The first Beat Circus album, 2004's Ringleaders Revolt, was an instrumental soundtrack to an imagined circus, the show's freakish elements underlined by jazz/improv freak-outs. The follow-up, Dreamland, themed after the Coney Island entertainment park of the same name, brought sophisticated arrangements and songs to the mix.

Boy from Black Mountain is influenced by familial themes rather than the traveling life, but it retains a strong sense of place. It is the most immediately catchy of the group's albums to date, while still presenting a varied and sophisticated musical palette. These features are apparent on the opening track, "The February Train". The first sound is Carpenter's harmonium, then strings enter with a hypnotic melody that itself is soon countered by deep brass. Suddenly the melody changes, all the instruments working together along with drums to introduce the melodic line of the song in a manner that brings to mind Egyptian string music. Carpenter adds a vocal to this mixture, his voice soaring with deep yearning as he sings of a land "where everything's true but nothing's real". There is certainly something to the comparisons that have been made between Carpenter's voice and Nick Cave's, but Stuart Staples of Tindersticks provides a closer comparison here.

The Cave-like (or cavernous?) voice is more on show in "The Life You Save May Be Your Own", a frantic Southern Gothic boogie that mixes freight-train harmonica, rockabilly guitar, brass stomp, and a heavenly choir. At the end of this breathless journey lies the title track, a masterpiece of childhood fantasy to rival John Stewart's "The Pirates of Stone County Road" and David Ackles's "Subway to the Country". Like those songs, it recalls a place where geography and imagination meet, a territory of the mind where anything may be possible. "Boy from Black Mountain" is inspired by Carpenter's response to his son's autism, and functions as both a hymn to the understanding of that condition and a reminder to take children's imaginative journeys seriously.

The lyrics of "Black Mountain" evoke a magical realist domain haunted by Buffalo Bill and Jonathan Swift, where a child can fly through the air and find "no enemies inside the dream". As Carpenter sings of the boy who "soared over trees with the greatest of ease / like that daring young man on the flying trapeze", there is a reminder that the space of the circus -- Carpenter's constant motif -- is also a site of magic, a liminal space where dreams can come true. The dynamics at play in this piece -- Carpenter's yearning vocal, the dramatic instrumental changes, and the overall sense of innocent speculation and otherworldly magic -- recall nothing so much as Neutral Milk Hotel's majestic In the Aeroplane Over the Sea.

The world summoned up in these narratives is not just Greil Marcus's "invisible republic", but a wider world of uncanny magic as evoked by the Handsome Family or the television serial Carnivàle. The positing of magical realism in the American South goes back at least to Edgar Allen Poe, but its 20th century evocation is perhaps most closely associated with William Faulkner, a guiding influence on subsequent magical realist writers like Gabriel Garcia Marquez (another author fascinated by circuses). It comes as no great surprise, then, when Beat Circus name one of their tracks "As I Lay Dying", a title taken from Faulkner. What is less expected is to find that it's an old-time hoedown, matching the doom-laden lyric ("Who will remember me as I lay dying?") to a frenetic sing-along chorus, high-speed banjo, and square-dance fiddle. Midway through, handclaps and choral testifying convert the song to a feisty spiritual outlining the road to redemption.

Equally infectious is "Petrified Man", a track which, for its first 45 seconds, might find a place on Harry Smith's anthology, all deep, doomed vocals and skeletal banjo. The chorus adds drums, backing choir, and a sense of calculated arrangement not found in Smith's selections. Similar sophistication is found in "Saturn Song", another piece inspired by Carpenter's son, which places a lyric about the discomfort felt by supposedly "good people" towards a "boy from Saturn" with an arrangement that asks American banjo to mix with Eastern-inflected violin and cello. What can't be achieved in the world of the lyrics is made eerily beautiful in the music. Singer-sngwriter Larkin Grimm accompanies Carpenter on this track.

"The Quick and the Dead" finds Carpenter at his most Johnny Cash-like as he delivers an uptempo gunfighter ballad. Towards the end of the song, Carpenter-Cash morphs into Carpenter-Cave and the world of American Gothic returns to its dominant position, as if to prepare us for subsequent track,"The Sound and the Fury". But it's a trick: the title may come from Faulkner again, but the music is radically different than anything else on the album. Over an ominous bass note introduced by the cello, a violin introduces a high-pitched, Middle Eastern melody that Grimm sings along to. Screeching saxophone enters, bringing a soundworld that is dissonant to that employed so far on the album. A jazz bassline is then accompanied by disembodied voices chanting in an unrecognizable language. The result is an edge-of-consciousness music -- trance-like, ritualistic, trippy, and unsettling -- more akin to the mid-20th century exotica of Les Baxter, Martin Denny, and Arthur Lyman than to any obvious Americana precursors (though Screaming Jay Hawkins and Dr John may be on hand to dispute such a claim). It's as though, wandering around familiar carnival tents, you lifted the flap of an unmarked tent and witnessed a spectacle that questioned everything you though you knew.

Following this unsettling encounter at the carnival's edge, Beat Circus return us to the by-now Old Familiar America for the religious number "Judgment Day", the dreamy instrumental "Lullaby for Alexander", and the unexpected but thrilling heavy rock of "Nantahala", which channels a similar cosmic Americana to that explored by Six Organs of Admittance and Comets on Fire. Then the fairground ride is over. You are left with a memory of thrills and spills, daring and speculation, worlds visited and obstacles overcome. Do you turn for home or go back in, hoping to stop time for just a little while longer? Whichever you choose, there's no doubt that Beat Circus have provided one of the highs of the year. Precisely what carnival should deliver.


Cover down, pray through: Bob Dylan's underrated, misunderstood "gospel years" are meticulously examined in this welcome new installment of his Bootleg series.

"How long can I listen to the lies of prejudice?
How long can I stay drunk on fear out in the wilderness?"
-- Bob Dylan, "When He Returns," 1979

Bob Dylan's career has been full of unpredictable left turns that have left fans confused, enthralled, enraged – sometimes all at once. At the 1965 Newport Folk Festival – accompanied by a pickup band featuring Mike Bloomfield and Al Kooper – he performed his first electric set, upsetting his folk base. His 1970 album Self Portrait is full of jazzy crooning and head-scratching covers. In 1978, his self-directed, four-hour film Renaldo and Clara was released, combining concert footage with surreal, often tedious dramatic scenes. Dylan seemed to thrive on testing the patience of his fans.

Keep reading... Show less

Inane Political Discourse, or, Alan Partridge's Parody Politics

Publicity photo of Steve Coogan courtesy of Sky Consumer Comms

That the political class now finds itself relegated to accidental Alan Partridge territory along the with rest of the twits and twats that comprise English popular culture is meaningful, to say the least.

"I evolve, I don't…revolve."
-- Alan Partridge

Alan Partridge began as a gleeful media parody in the early '90s but thanks to Brexit he has evolved into a political one. In print and online, the hopelessly awkward radio DJ from Norwich, England, is used as an emblem for incompetent leadership and code word for inane political discourse.

Keep reading... Show less

The show is called Crazy Ex-Girlfriend largely because it spends time dismantling the structure that finds it easier to write women off as "crazy" than to offer them help or understanding.

In the latest episode of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, the CW networks' highly acclaimed musical drama, the shows protagonist, Rebecca Bunch (Rachel Bloom), is at an all time low. Within the course of five episodes she has been left at the altar, cruelly lashed out at her friends, abandoned a promising new relationship, walked out of her job, had her murky mental health history exposed, slept with her ex boyfriend's ill father, and been forced to retreat to her notoriously prickly mother's (Tovah Feldshuh) uncaring guardianship. It's to the show's credit that none of this feels remotely ridiculous or emotionally manipulative.

Keep reading... Show less

If space is time—and space is literally time in the comics form—the world of the novel is a temporal cage. Manuele Fior pushes at the formal qualities of that cage to tell his story.

Manuele Fior's 5,000 Km Per Second was originally published in 2009 and, after winning the Angouléme and Lucca comics festivals awards in 2010 and 2011, was translated and published in English for the first time in 2016. As suggested by its title, the graphic novel explores the effects of distance across continents and decades. Its love triangle begins when the teenaged Piero and his best friend Nicola ogle Lucia as she moves into an apartment across the street and concludes 20 estranged years later on that same street. The intervening years include multiple heartbreaks and the one second phone delay Lucia in Norway and Piero in Egypt experience as they speak while 5,000 kilometers apart.

Keep reading... Show less

Featuring a shining collaboration with Terry Riley, the Del Sol String Quartet have produced an excellent new music recording during their 25 years as an ensemble.

Dark Queen Mantra, both the composition and the album itself, represent a collaboration between the Del Sol String Quartet and legendary composer Terry Riley. Now in their 25th year, Del Sol have consistently championed modern music through their extensive recordings (11 to date), community and educational outreach efforts, and performances stretching from concert halls and the Library of Congress to San Francisco dance clubs. Riley, a defining figure of minimalist music, has continually infused his compositions with elements of jazz and traditional Indian elements such as raga melodies and rhythms. Featuring two contributions from Riley, as well as one from former Riley collaborator Stefano Scodanibbio, Dark Queen Mantra continues Del Sol's objective of exploring new avenues for the string quartet format.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.