Three Mile Pilot disbanded — or rather, went on hiatus — at a peak few bands ever reach. While The Chief Assassin to the Sinister is a bona fide classic (complete with a Wilco-worthy major label subplot), their follow-up, and what would be their final disc, Another Desert, Another Sea is arguably even better. Whatever the reasons for the band’s break, the ensuing nine years have found Pall Jenkins and Tobias Nathaniel astonishingly busy with their “side-project”, the Black Heart Procession. Toning down the rock and upping the atmosphere, over the course of four albums the band has navigated the darkest corners of love and death, rarely ever stopping to come up for air.
If its first three albums relied on minimalism in execution, style, and name (1, 2, and Three were the so-titled discs), 2002’s Amore Del Tropico was a welcome change to the usual 3 AM piano bar sound the band had perfected. With touches of tropicalia and other Latin music, Amore Del Tropico was a jauntier, livelier affair musically, and lyrically spun the typically wine-soaked heartbroken lyrics into a Lynchian murder mystery. The band even filmed the damn thing, releasing The Tropics of Love on DVD in 2004.
With its newest disc, titled The Spell, I wasn’t sure which version of the Black Heart Procession I was going to get. Amore Del Tropico was an inspired excursion and I was excited to see what the band would bring with four years lapsed between the discs. Frustratingly, it’s the same old Black Heart Procession we’ve known since 1997.
“Tangled” opens the album with a slightly reverbed, ominously considered piano melody that’s typical of we’ve come to know the band for. Palm-muted guitar riffs and haunted organ fill out the sound, all of which is led by Jenkin’s mournful vocals. If I sound dissatisfied, it’s not because I don’t like the band, or that even that this is particularly bad. It’s just disappointment in a band seemingly content to rehash its style. To be sure, there are some minute stylistic changes. The recording, done at its own studio by the band itself, is much more airy than anything it’s done before. Violinist Matt Resovich adds some beautiful texture and even some lead lines on tracks like “The Spell”.
But the disc by and large is dulled by an overwhelming sense of familiarity. Every piano chord, every faux-waltz rhythm, every calculated emotional rise and fall feels routine and tired. If this were the first time I’d ever heard the Black Heart Procession, I would surely be thrilled, but with three full discs and what appears to be a one-off disc of sunnier fueled ambition, there is not much reason to get excited by The Spell. Perhaps caught up in its own standard style, the band even manages to repeat the lead guitar line from “GPS” three songs later, during the close of “The Fix”. Even the slightly countrified closer “To Bring You Back” is marred lyrically by a poor approximation of the poetic longing better captured on past efforts.
To say that the Black Heart Procession has taken a step backward would be inaccurate, as the real problem with The Spell is that the band stays exactly where it is. What was once a unique offshoot from a truly unique band has stumbled into creative rut. For a band that is now nearly a decade into its career, to release an album that retreads their superior earlier material with far less passion and conviction is about as depressing as the music is.