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Murder by Death - Who Will Survive And What Will be Left of Them?
Label: EyeBall
Release: 2003

Tracklisting:
The Devil in Mexico
Killbot 2000
Until Morale Continues, The Beatings will Continue
Three Men Hanging
Intermission
A Masters in Reverse Psychology
The Desert is on Fire
That Crown Don't Make You a Prince
Pillars of Salt
End of the Line
Who Will Survive And What Will be Left of Them? - Murder by Death
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Concept albums have a long history and a bad reputation for being thematic, pretentious shots at artistic grandeur or ego strokes for artists with a god complex. Known sometimes for being home to 10 minute epics, or 5 minute guitar solos or weird character voices, the concept album may have earned this horrid reputation. But never the less, some of the greatest albums of all time are well steeped in this artistic time honored tradition.
Most good concept albums are either thematic affairs with epic artistic grandeur, often finding themselves as artsy parables or thematic explorations with a strong sense of cohesion and idea, sometimes with a healthy slice egotism and showy pretension. Many of these better executed albums become staples of musical brilliance (The Beatles’; “Sgt. Peppers…”, Radiohead’s; “Ok Computer”, Pink Floyd’s “The Wall”, The Smashing Pumpkins’ “Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness”, NIN’s “the Downward Spiral” and Neutral Milk Hotel’s “In the Aeroplane over the sea”). But if you scroll thru your rolodex of brilliant concept albums, you’re likely to find that most are either deep intimate confessionals (Dylan’s “Blood on the Tracks”, The Afghan Whigs’ “Gentlemen”, Floyds’ “The Wall” or Lennon’s “Plastic Ono Band”) or profound ruminations on theme or poignant statement (Neutral Milk Hotel’s “In the Aeroplane over the Sea”, Radiohead’s “Ok Computer”, “Kid A/Amnesiac”, The Smashing Pumpkins “Mellon Collie and Infinite Sadness” or, most recently, the Arcade Fire’s “Funeral”). eEven though these albums seem replete with characters that take steps into the realms of the conceptually bizarre, like two-headed boys, boys in Spain playing pianos filled with flames, little genetically engineered bears and, recurring lines like “the urgency of now” or voyages thru neighborhoods, none of these albums truly functions as an out and out narrative despite their cohesive or thematic points.
No, truly good, truly conceptual concept albums are few and far between. The Music industry has grown quite a bit jaded about artists with that type of elaborate vision since the late 60’s and that type of story telling is few and far between… at least in something you’d bother listening to. Likely backlash of doing something as self indulgent as a rock-opera type album in this day and age is a bit like a carrier suicide in the current all-to-jaded music scene (note the critical and commercial failure of the Pumpkins criminally underrated “Machina” albums in 2,000). But beyond the terrible stigma of being known as the bald guy in a dress who sang about being in a made up rock band receiving made up messages from God, there is the more obvious problem of simple songwriting. Writing good music with specific narrative in mind can be a particularly daunting task. Most bands that go for this level of rock-opera-esque pretension typically fall flat on their face trying to find a good medium between narrative and connection with the audience. Sure, there are the classic exceptions (most notably “Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars”, and the Who’s “Tommy”).
But Murder by Death’s “Who will survive and what will be left of them?” seems to be the first album in quite a long time to nail the very essence of a good narrative concept album. It begins with a rag-time introduction speaking of the Devil drinking in a bar in the ole’ west when he get shot right thru, the music quickly changes from rag-time to a moody rock dirge involving a dying devil in a hospital bed… and than the cello comes in. Murder by Death is likely the most moody band you will ever here that doesn’t have a reputation for 10 minute guitar-noodling epics. Replete with shifting dynamics between brooding, somber and reserved ballads about death to violent intimidating freak-outs complete with trashed guitars, banged drums, pounded pianos and savage cello moans. Murder by Death is music for good horror movies, and that is exactly the type of story that this album tells. A devil hell-bent vengeance tears apart a small Western town, infecting the children with plagues and sending demons and zombies upon the townspeople, all the while, the traditional cowboy anti-hero we are introduced to who shot the devil turns from cold gruff dirty Harry character to a protector of the innocent. The townspeople must find it within themselves to fight against Satan’s hordes. Sure, you could say this is a parable in reference to the resilient spirit of the human soul or the redemptive qualities thereof, but fuck that, there are zombies!
Despite all the quirkiness of the albums concept, and the laughable tongue and cheek nature of the narrative, the music itself sells every second of the story, brooding, ominous, vicious, loud and pretty. The music will not allow you the privilege of disconnecting from the town and giggling, no, it connects with you completely, you can quite nearly feel the sweat on your brow and the fear in your heart thru the various Americana-esque sounds that find their way onto these songs.
Luckily, the album is well informed of its own plot, each song seems to be a progression of the story. From the gunshot in the devils back, to the dying children to the zombies and the plagues on the families and the gun in hand basement barricades we find our hero holed up in. and, in spite of its questionable subject matter every now and then a line will be sung that shoots you right in the gut, making the music that much more relevant. The album is jam packed with brilliant poetic lyrics and simple effecting prose that might make Bukuwski smile, and lines like “carry their little bodies to the cemetery/ so gently” in “Killbot 2000” lets you feel the heartache and loss of the innocent children. “fill the lamp up with kerosene and toss the rest in the hall just coat the walls and strike the cigarette when you hear them coming we'll pray for them and stay with them till the poor little bastards die hand in hand we'll never forget them when they're gone” in “a masters in reverse psychology” informs you of the cold immediacy of the situation, leaving you with a deep emotional connection despite the subject matter… especially in this paranoid post-9/11 world.
With its endless call backs to old Clint Eastwood westerns, classic Zombie Horror classics and various other b-movies, the lyrics is almost as budding with influence as the music itself. Everything from punk rocks frantic energy to Godspeed you black emperor’s orchestration, crescendos and dynamics seem to be called up here, Slint’s sparse noise and frightening noise and screams to Okkervil rivers alt. country digs. But still, every moment is undeniably Murder by Death. This album oozes with style and heart you’re not likely to find anywhere else. Plus it’s got the sold narrative construct to give Ziggy a run for his concept album money.
Highly recommended for anybody

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