If you've ever played the excellent Silent Hill series of video games, you understand how troubling prolonged misery and confusion in a work of art can be. In the Silent Hill games, you wander through derelict, deserted towns trying to figure out just what the hell is going on. There are creatures of unknown origin around every corner and dread seeps into every shadow. The sea-side towns are sheathed in a thick haze of fog; and grainy, film-like textures are applied to all of the graphics. Imagine the early deserted-London scenes from Danny Boyle's recent 28 Days Later and you're almost there. Now listen to the new album by Broadway Project and you've hit it precisely.
The pet project of producer, arranger, and writer Dan Berridge, and vocalist/writer Richard Palmer, The Vessel is the sophomore release from Berridge (Palmer has been recently recruited). According to Berridge, "When Richard and myself first met, we realized that we had a shared vision for this kind of emotive and raw music. We both wanted to make an honest and heartfelt album that worked on people's deeper emotions. Music for late night. To give you strength." Music for late night indeed.
Despite bearing song titles such as "Beauty" and "Angel Heart", the sound of the LP is better exemplified by titles such as "Beaten Dog" and "Unborn". Exceedingly dense and claustrophobic, the music created for this latest installment of Broadway Project calls to mind such progressive-leaning bands as Portishead, Sigur Ros, Radiohead, UNKLE, and Pink Floyd. If that sounds like a first-class list of influences than you're sure to enjoy The Vessel. Musically, the album is as varied texturally as its artwork suggests. Vinyl pops and clicks abound as strings, pianos, synthesizers, guitars, various percussion instruments, tape loops, and Wurlitzer all collide in a mish-mash of musical splatter paint. That's not to suggest that The Vessel isn't well-thought out or well-constructed, quite the contrary actually. It is a unique vision and one that bodes well for the genre of trip-hop. If that's what you want to call it.
The album was recorded in Bristol (trip-hop's spiritual Mecca) and definitely bears much of that city's trademark sound. The opening track, "Beauty", is a cinematic tour-de-force with its military-style snare drums, eerie backing vocals, and Beatles-esque snippets of cello, piano, and tape loops. It is an undeniable statement of intent.
The Vessel's excellent lead-off single follows. "I Believe in Superman" features Palmer on vocals. He has a peculiar vocal timbre. It's a very androgynous-sounding tone. Think Bret Anderson from Suede crossed with Horace Andy. It's not an altogether pleasing combination, but it works well in the context of this music. A more traditional-sounding voice would place Broadway Project too close to a host of other trip-hop leaning, torch song collectives.
Berridge employs four members of the New Testament Assembly Gospel Choir to absolutely soul-stirring effect on "Darkling". With repeated refrains of "Jesus, bring me rest . . .", the choir conjures up nightmarish visions of torch-lit tent revivals and backwoods baptisms. It is truly frightening stuff, but it is the highlight of an album filled with big moments. Stunning.
"Sufi" follows and it could very well be the album's second single. While definitely sitting comfortably in Portishead territory, the song's creepy sequential synthesizers (which, incidentally, sound exactly like the synthesizers from Kraftwerk's "Hall of Mirrors") and dynamic percussion give it an otherworldly tone that sets it in another place altogether.
The rest of The Vessel tumbles along in much the same way. Sampled raindrops here, huge waves of ocean water crashing emphatically against walls of percussion there, and Richard Palmer's weirdly beautiful vocals wrapping the whole package in a ribbon of heartbreak, loss, and, ultimately, hope.
Not every cut is a complete success. "For the One" doesn't stand out from the pack, and "Unborn" is too short to form a coherent idea (perhaps that's because a coherent idea never manifested itself in the first place). The latter also offers up the most simplistic string section on an album filled with off-the-wall arrangements.
An album with such lofty musical aspirations could very well find itself falling into the trap that so many other similar groups fall into: "If we can get 75 minutes on a CD, then gosh-darn it, we're going to fill it!" Thankfully, restraint is shown. The Vessel clocks in at just over thirty minutes and while that may seem a little short for a full-length, you'll be happy for it in the end. The Vessel packs so many ideas, sounds, and moods into these thirty minutes that when the last track fades away, the listener is left emotionally drained and completely satisfied with the overall experience.
Overall, it's a stunning listen. Broadway Project's The Vessel is one of the most intriguing and original albums of 2003. If you're a fan of the genre, it's a must-buy.