Ecstasy and Doom
an appreciation of Big Blood
"It's true that every time you hear a bell, an angel gets its wings. But what they don't tell you is that every time you hear a mouse trap snap, an angel gets set on fire."
- Jack Handey
Big Blood are Colleen Kinsella and Caleb Mulkerin, a married couple in Portland, Maine, who have averaged more than two home-recorded albums a year since 2007. Their music sounds so much better to me than to anyone I know that I almost doubt my sanity, and I've become cautious about sharing it outside this page. In my mind, their songs are so dense with beauty and weirdness that my own creative work has become a grasping for that astonishment.
They each write and sing lead on their own songs, but Colleen usually sings backup for Caleb, and her voice is the heart of their sound. I've heard it described as sounding like a 95 year old woman, a toddler, a witch, a cat, "discordant screeching", and "is there something wrong with the recording or is she doing that on purpose?" During rehearsals for Stravinski's The Rite of Spring, musicians kept thinking there were mistakes in the score. What Colleen is doing on purpose is using her voice more creatively than any singer I've heard.
I understood this better when I saw Ariana Grande on Saturday Night Live: she can do spot-on impressions of the styles of other singers, but her own style is forgettable. Imitation is easy, and the hard thing is to come up with an interesting original voice. Bob Dylan did it once, Robert Plant did it once, and Colleen almost tries to do it again on every song.
The other heart of their sound is Caleb's style and sound engineering. In this podcast interview Colleen reveals that Caleb sees colors in sounds, and he does the recording and mixing like he's painting. You can see every brush stroke, and it would have been too intense for me if my ears hadn't already been tuned to Big Blood's piercing vocals, one-beat rhythms, fuzz-folk instrumentation, and spacy background aura.
Even then, at first I only heard about 30 songs that I wanted to keep listening to. Now I'm over 100, but it has been a long process of craving harder stuff and not finding it anywhere except by listening to more Big Blood. I only discovered them in summer of 2014, and since I started this page in spring of 2015, I've been in a compelling feedback loop: listening closely, coming here to put the music into words, and then using those words to guide my next round of listening, which continues to correct my understanding, "unknowingly incomplete".
[Change log. Februrary 8, 2017: Sequins continues to unfold. 1/20: reinterpreted The Queen. 1/11: more Sequins. 12/14/2016: rewrote Full Of Smoke. 11/29: more about Vitamin C. 11/20: new description of Haystack. 10/16: filled out Night Terrors and added stub for Ant Farm. 9/29: moved SFB influences to top of favorite songs page. 8/29: expanded SFB interpretation. 7/15: interpreted Haystack. 7/3: theory of musical entropy on Got Wings. 6/23: filled out Strange Maine 2 and rewrote Double Days 1. 5/30: changed page title. 5/28: completely rewrote and expanded Unlikely Mothers.]
Most of their music is available on this Free Music Archive page, but some of their best stuff is not, and they have a few good songs on side projects under other names. Here's their discography on Discogs, their last.fm page, their record company blog, their bandcamp page, and a Facebook fan page. Scroll down if you want to listen to my playlists, and here it is album by album:
Asian Mae - Collsing (1999 - 2004)
On Big Blood's Free Music Archive page, they describe themselves as a "phantom four piece of Asian Mae, Caleb Mulkerin, Rose Philistine and Colleen Kinsella." These identities must have something to do with their creative process, and this album is a collection of Colleen's recordings before Big Blood. At the time she and Caleb were in a band called Cerberus Shoal, and the one bit from Cerberus Shoal that I would put on the same level as Big Blood is from 3:20-4:10 of Baby Gal.
Of all the tracks on Collsing, Ballad Of The 13 Year Old is the clearest example of proto-Big Blood, with threads that will be in Colleen's songs for years: dissonant guitar picking, multitrack vocals, a structure somewhere between verse-chorus and chaos, and her voice even has a bit of a dark edge.
Window In Time is a pretty folk song, and the most interesting thing is that Colleen's vocal control is already excellent. It's like how the best painters master illustration and conventional painting before they develop their own style, and it's evidence that all the crazy stuff she does later is done with focus and intention.
Strange Maine 11.04.06
Their first three albums are named with live venues and dates, so I assumed they were live albums, but I read somewhere that they would play a live show and then record the set list at home. Anyway, if Big Blood had made only this one album, its stunning quality over so many styles would already be enough to tie them with Hawkwind as my favorite band. That they would go on to be so prolific and adventurous makes me feel impossibly lucky.
The opener, All Operations, is sparkly space folk with Colleen singing two lead vocal tracks from the left and right channels, but only after a long intro. In a clear statement to listeners, the first 90 seconds of their first album is a medieval lilt jam that sounds like getting lost in a fairy forest.
All Operations also sets a precedent for lyrics that we're not supposed to understand. In the interview Colleen explains that her lyrics are so slippery because "a word pins you down," and I didn't really get this until I spent some time on Picbreeder. The secret of creativity is to use ideas as doorways to better ideas. Occasionally Big Blood will give us a deeper look at their creative process by releasing multiple evolutionary steps of a song.
The first time I heard A Quiet Lousy Roar I thought "What is this shit?" Then when I finally got it I almost jumped off the couch. It's like children's music on acid -- backed only by percussion, Colleen squeaks nonsense and finally explodes in a glimmery cacophony, which might have been inspired by The Specials' Ghost Town.
Sometimes it sounds like they're trying to be weird, and other times they just happen to be weird while aiming for beauty. My girlfriend says that Full Of Smoke sounds like inbred angels. When Colleen sings along with Caleb, her voice catches something bright that illuminates her best songs.
Past Time is like an extended solo by a dreamy lounge singer in an alternate 1930's, with almost no repetition, and words that slip into incoherence among soul-splitting notes. "Guide us astray of golden threads so loose that binding me are they still."
A lot of Big Blood songs are in a grey area between folk and rock, but I wouldn't call them "folk rock" because they combine the sounds differently than anyone else. Under The Concourse is a great example with a catchy chorus and a timeless vibe. It's hard to find anything this heavy and this warm.
And Slumber Me is Colleen's first organ song (I can't always tell the difference between accordion and harmonium). It's long and slow, with a sound that fits the title, and a smooth layering that they will continue to develop -- compare it to A Watery Down I from 2014.
Strange Maine 1.20.07
With all its crazy variety, their first album is still a serious portfolio of their musical range, and instead of settling down, they followed it up with a full-on experimental album, pushing the edges of their sound and bringing in more influences. With the opener, a cover of Erik Satie's First Gnossienne, they're practicing melodies that are less folky and more sophisticated. Where other recordings like this one are sad and beautiful, Big Blood's translation is eerie and gothic. At the end it bleeds into Suffer Creation, an experiment in multilayer vocals that sounds like water sprites joined by a frog.
Sovereignty You Bitch is louder and tighter than Under The Concourse, with Colleen adding electro-shock backing vocals.
Handsome Son of No One is Colleen's classiest song, like something you'd hear at an elite music school in the distant past or future. Notice how different the choruses are from the verses while still being in the same subgenre of music. I imagine that this ethereal avant-garde chamber folk is her native style, while Caleb's native style is the backwoods garage thrash of the previous song, and their greatness as a band comes from their integration of these two forces:
Between heaven and earth,
That's chapter 5.2 of the Tao Te Ching, translated by Ellen Chen, who notes that "bellows" could also mean a musical instrument.
How like a bellows it is!
Empty and yet inexhaustible,
Moving and yet it pours out ever more.
My favorite on this album is a cover of the Sumatran pop song Indang Pariaman. At first I dismissed it as some kind of awful Hindu temple chant, but now it's one of the most luminous and trippy things I've heard.
The Fall of Quinnisa Rose has Caleb's most beautiful falsetto voice. And A Goddamn Spell is the most challenging song on the album, as Colleen's early folk sound tries on a closetful of weirdness. The scratch guitar makes it seem like a secret tunnel from Slumber Me to The Grove Is Hotter Than An Ocean's Oven.
Space Gallery Jan. 27, 2007 Sahara Club Jan. 28, 2007
Another good complete album. They do three songs each, starting with their strongest and ending with their darkest, and then a mystery. In Colleen's opener, Glory Daze, she sings like a demonic circus performer trying to break glass. Shrining Light is a fluttery folk song that's the album's biggest hit on YouTube. And A Hole In One is their first really gothic song, with dark looming vocals and harmonium like a mournful church organ.
Caleb owns this album, with three brilliant songs in different styles. Don't Trust The Ruin is an epic noise dirge like a postapocalyptic journey through a haunted swamp. For a while I wondered why they named their record company after this minor song, but after more listening, the combined sound of their voices would make Cthulhu blush, and this is a landmark in their musical story, the seed of Caleb's darker songs.
She Said Nothing is a top notch folk song, and I can hear Colleen's influence in Caleb's heady lyrics and punctuated singing style. And The Rise of Quinnisa Rose would be my religion if it weren't for Song For Baltimore. A great happy song is harder than a great dark song, and this is a high-stakes performance of a perfect composition, with two absolutely raw voices merging into something almost unbearably alive, and then Colleen's psychedelic yodeling blows off the roof. Quinnisa Rose is their daughter, who sort of created the band by keeping them at home instead of touring. She was born in 2007 and would start contributing to their albums immediately if you count crying, in 2010 as a speaker, and in 2015 as a singer-songwriter.
On the treasure pile of Big Blood's music, Sequins is this weird doodad off to the side, and the more I listen to it, the less I understand it and the more I like it. There are a lot of songs that have made me cry, but only Sequins makes me laugh at the audacity of its beauty. Where did this even come from? It used to be credited to Alex Lukashevsky, but I can no longer find that attribution, and I could never find an original song.
I think aliens sent it in a space probe. Sequins isn't even experimental -- it's a fully realized performance in a genre from nowhere. The rhythm sounds the way stop-motion animation looks, the vocals are not in any language or structure that I recognize, I have no idea what the lead instrument is, and overall it has so many ideas on so many time scales that it shouldn't even fit in this world. This is the sound of the angelic steampunk clockwork that turns the galaxy. Sometimes I think the line in Song For Baltimore is really "the spirit risen in Sequins."
Sew Your Wild Days Tour Vol. 1 (2007)
Until now Colleen has been working around the edges of perfect musical happiness, bumping against it with Glory Daze and Shrining Light, and climbing the wall with the help of Indang Pariman, Sequins, and The Rise of Quinnisa Rose. Now it all comes together in Adversaries & Enemies, an explosion of bliss that anticipates the supernova at the end of the album. Here's a live version by Fire On Fire. "Pressure wash this sacred surface."
Vitamin C is a cover of the krautrock band Can, and the arrangement of sounds is absolutely perfect. The insistent airtight drums and guitar, the snake charmer organ, and the vocals, cold and bright like an ice storm, come together into something aggressive, seductive, and razor sharp. This would be my soundtrack for killing zombies.
Don't Trust The Ruin II sounds like Joanna Newsom's ghost covering "Bela Lugosi's Dead", and the title is a clue to how they think about music, because the structure is like A Quiet Lousy Roar, and it's the spooky dissonant vibe that resembles Don't Trust The Ruin. I love how a bell rings at the peak of the song.
Song For Baltimore is the most astonishing thing I've ever experienced. Sometimes in a dream I'll hear music that's better than any real music could possibly be, but Song For Baltimore is that good -- I'm afraid if I hear it too many times I'll wake up. The verses are like electrocution by whimsy, and the choruses rise to rivers of lightning that get brighter and brighter as the low end fills with electric guitar and a monk-like choir. This is what Christmas songs are trying to be. Song For Baltimore is the key that opens my brain to the light behind the world. From The Picture of Dorian Gray:
...the silent spirit that dwelt in dim woodland, and walked unseen in open field, suddenly showing herself, Dryad-like and not afraid, because in his soul who sought for her there had been wakened that wonderful vision to which alone are wonderful things revealed; the mere shapes and patterns of things becoming, as it were, refined, and gaining a kind of symbolical value, as though they were themselves patterns of some other and more perfect form whose shadow they made real: how strange it all was!
The lyrics have both the content and the cadence of a prayer. They might be about the ecstasy of ego loss in intense social experiences (some things wash away, so you're one thing) or meditation (the choice, every part of this groove is quiet). But I think they're about a well-lived life (greet more friends, bearing the weight of themselves lightly) and its metaphysical context (the bright is all the more beautiful, the spirit risen in sequence). Life begins when a spark of the divine is fixed in space and time (so you're one thing, right in this vicinity) and it ends with a reopening (windows, curtains) and dissolving of the self. Notice at the end that Colleen is still singing at the top of her voice, but the sound fades in the mix and is swallowed by noise that resolves into a deep full-bodied riff like a cosmic processional. The final words: "And I'm holy."
Sew Your Wild Days Tour Vol. II (2007)
In a discography pushing 200 songs, the two most magical are back to back, but they're magical in different ways, like the sun and the moon. The first time I heard Song For Baltimore it was like I'd been blind and could see. The first five times I heard Haystack it was like someone going on too long at open mike night, but I stuck with it, and now it sounds like something Tolkien heard in a dream that inspired him to invent elves -- you're walking though a forest and you come upon a campfire song by a shimmery people who are fading away because this world is too coarse for them.
The structure of Haystack, even more than Destin Rain, is based on twos. At the beginning are two lines with the same meter, each divided in two by an internal rhyme; framing the middle is a chorus performed twice, each divided into singing and breathing, with the singing further divided by doubling the same line; and at the end is a spell-like verse repeated with changes, like its own weird echo. Wrapped around this scaffolding is an unfolding of disarray as intricate as a spiderweb and as impulsive as the wind. Listening to Haystack is like watching a butterfly. The only other song that moves the same way is Big Star's Kangaroo.
Adding to the mystery, the song's full name is "Haystack (A.P.)" My crazy interpretation is that AP is Applied Physics and the song is about surviving entropy. Freeman Dyson has said that the universe will never experience heat death, because life can always keep adapting to lower energy even when the stars have burned out: "There are so many ways in which to feel the sun." Notice the background hiss, the sterile high entropy which is overcome by the hiss of living breath.
But it's probably about weed: "A mossy green carpet to swallow driven thoughts... late night, flashing light, smell of smoke... we've got grace, time slows down." We achieve grace by suppressing the rational mind (losing headroom) and letting go of language (peeling off the labels); we experience the divine in everything (so many ways in which to feel the sun) and then you hear the smoke being exhaled.
This album's other great song, Got Wings?, sounds even more like a hillbilly devil cult than Big Blood usually does. I want to say it sounds like Tom Waits but in some ways it's even more concentrated, and it shows their ongoing ambition to make their sound louder but no less raw.
Why does the term "folk metal" always refer to music that starts at metal and moves toward folk, and not the other way around? I think it's because metal exists on a higher level of energy. Energy is not the same as quality, but music of a given quality can drop in energy, or add lower-energy elements, and easily keep its balance, while moving a higher energy level is much more difficult.
Three absolute triumphs, all going from folk to something extremely heavy in the space of one song, are Led Zeppelin's Babe I'm Gonna Leave You, Hawkwind's Space Is Deep, and Song For Baltimore. Notice how different they are. Even hard rock songs by artists with folk backgrounds, like Bowie's The Width of a Circle or 10,000 Maniacs' My Mother The War, have unique sounds. This is why there can never be a folk-to-metal genre, because adding noise without losing beauty means riding a wave of chaos that could end up anywhere. Everything that rises must diverge.
Reversing musical entropy is not something Big Blood got inspired and did one time. It's something they've done so consistently that it must be part of their practice. Got Wings, in its own way, is more metal than anything they've done before, and that elevator is only on the second floor and still rising.
Fire On Fire: Self-titled and The Orchard (2007-2008)
Fire On Fire is a side project with both members of Big Blood and some friends who lived in the same house, including members of Cerberus Shoal. I wonder if they took their name from Swinburne's poem "Laus Veneris": "Her eyelids on her eyes like flower on flower, Mine eyelids on mine eyes like fire on fire." Anyway I'm lumping their two albums together, and I'm not sure where they fit chronologically with the other 2007-2008 albums. At this stage they were cranking out albums so fast that they probably overlap each other in the recording dates of the songs. Squeeze Box sounds like the future, while Fire On Fire's Haystack sounds like a rehearsal not yet come to life.
Hangman is a much improved version of A Friendly Noose from their first album. The verses alternate with an incredible blend of Colleen's voice and a luminous string tremolo, joined by high fuzz guitar like happy insects. This will eventually be in an indie film and then in a commercial for antidepressants.
Amnesia is a bright, catchy song that's either about reincarnation or the difficulty of living mindfully. That's a live rehearsal by Fire On Fire, and here's another live Amnesia with just Big Blood. Lyrics sites have the line "And amnesia was forgetting", but I'm pretty sure it's "An amnesia worth forgetting".
Assanine Race is a bluegrassy song with lyrics about social pressures and holding out for success on your own terms: "I gotta keep up with Mr. Jones, and the Devil who eats my brother's bones. When I find him I'll make him wait, as long as my very first date."
I think Squeeze Box is about having a religious experience while drugged in the hospital: the squeeze box is the body, and identity is an illusion, but one we have to work with. "Does a man seek his own face for the flaws in shadows beneath?" Notice how the verses and choruses have radically different sounds -- the verses are pure folk while the choruses are like doom chamber rock. This ominous, wintery tone will become a big part of Colleen's sound, so I think of the song as a boundary marker, with the verses looking backward and the choruses looking forward.
The Grove (2008)
The Grove Is Hotter Than An Ocean's Oven is the first time Colleen's voice has been both this strong and this dark, with this much edge on both the low and high notes. It might also be their only angry song, with lyrics about ecological destruction caused by human progress. "The race is on, radiate your will."
No Gravity Blues is the best minimalist song possible, with just one electric guitar track, one vocal track, and no structure except that the whole thing is a buildup and resolution around the shocking note at 1:44. It affects me so strongly that if it came on the car stereo I would have to pull over. If I started my own country this would be the national anthem, with different singers resolving the vocals into different words. The lyrics are probably about a tired relationship, but I pretend they're about a transcendent experience: "If it doesn't really real, may be, go long, be still."
At first I thought No Gravity Blues could be a stripped down version of its companion, Low Gravity Blues, but now I think Low Gravity Blues is a rocked up tribute, and a cornerstone of several noisy songs to come. And Something Brighter Than The News takes the eerie vibe of No Gravity Blues and adds more layers.
In The Light Of The Moon is a pretty song on one of my favorite themes, the conflict between the world of dreams and the depressing material world, with great lyrics. "I used to be a lover from a well-oiled plan, but now I'm just loving the things I don't understand."
'Lectric 'Lashes (2008)
This is a collaboration with the band Visitations. Everything is untitled, most of it is improvised, and the only thing I like is side A track 2, a super-dreamy soft-psych song that reminds me of O Willow Waly from the movie The Innocents.
Big Blood and The Bleedin' Hearts (2008)
The Bleedin' Hearts are three other Portland musicians who each play on four songs. One of them is Oh Country (Skin & Bones), which is like a prettier Song For Baltimore: three verses, wordless wailing choruses, and music that gradually builds. It also reminds me of Lon Lon Ranch from Zelda Ocarina of Time, but much more alive, with vocals like sticky ripe fruit on the tree. Here's a video of Oh Country live in which the girl on the mixing board hears the same thing that I do.
The Bleedin' Hearts also play on The Birds & The Herds, a catchy song about animals looking forward to the fall of humanity. Notice the call-and-response structure with two different emotional tones, like a righteous preacher and a happy congregation. The guitar at the end is the most beautiful non-vocal sound in any Big Blood song.
And Graceless Lady is a triumphant collage, a nine minute epic that walks the line between Colleen's happy songs and her dark songs. This was the first Big Blood song I heard, and it's a good choice to introduce a random person to their sound.
Already Gone I and II (2009)
This double album is so experimental that my favorite song is the most conventional, a smooth cover of the 80's hit She Sells Sanctuary, with a great fan video.
Breath In A Seed is deep cowboy blues, like something that would be played around a campfire in a Cormac McCarthy novel. Beatle Bones & Smokin Stones is fun and goofy, and Polly + The Sheep is a psych rock jam with something that sounds like bagpipes. I'm sure there's more good stuff that I haven't decrypted.
Night Terrors On The Isle Of Louis Hardin (2010)
This is the first of what I call their ambient albums. Normally they seem to start with songs and add a variety of styles, but here they start with a particular style that sometimes develops in the direction of songs. On the surface it sounds like a casual goth-twee noodling session, but on closer listen it's often meticulously engineered, with disciplined riffs and multiple layers.
You can listen to the whole thing on the bandcamp page. The opener, Sidewalk-Walk/Un-Nole, with its squeaky carnival wagon opening and slow build, is like a quiet version of one of their great songs, and Men Were Lions is like a sequel that takes that sound to a darker place. Head of Horns is like a quiet Polly and the Sheep, or like a medieval cover of Yo La Tengo's Spec Bebop.
Once Upon A Time has the same minimal industrial rhythm as Camper Van Beethoven's Klondike, and this whole album sounds a little like that song, but more than anything it reminds me of the Machinarium soundtrack, but more stylish and organic. The Nights of Gamelot is like Babylonian street music, and Machines Were Mice is like someone turned a piano into a steampunk music box.
Dead Songs (2010)
Another album not on the free music archive, and another where they seem to be trying a different creative process. Colleen's songs all have clear lyrics and relatively simple backing music, as if the words were written in a notebook and then the songs were built around them.
Dead Song is a total success in rocking out. If Big Blood were a classic rock band this would be the one you'd hear on the radio, and I love to sing it even more than Veteran of the Psychic Wars. The lyrics seem to be about the dead waiting to reincarnate, or about listening to ancestors. "Remember the chills before being."
A Spiral Down is another tight song with great vocals. And New Eyes is a whispery ballad that gains depth with more listens.
Operators & Things (2010)
At only a minute and twenty seconds, South of Portland is a new level in noise. The sound is pure Halloween, but the the lyrics seem to be about cleansing -- which fits, because when I hear a song that's too bullshitty, South of Portland will clean my brain. It has the same structure as Song For Baltimore: three peaks, each one higher, doing the same thing with more intensity.
Operators and Things is the title of a classic book by Barbara O'Brien about insanity and the power of the subconscious, including creative power, so I wonder if they chose the title because Destin Rain stands with Song For Baltimore as an example of musical possession by Something deeper. The two songs have a similar shock-squeak vocal style, but Destin Rain is even more whimsical and more complex. The only thing I've heard that sounds anything like it is Broken Social Scene's Anthems For A Seventeen Year-Old Girl, but Destin Rain has a lot more going on, and a completely original structure.
It starts with a normal buildup to what sound like verses, but they're never repeated, just more intro to one long rise and fall, with a long plateau at the top whose highest peaks are all doing different things, one exploding star after another. The closest thing to a chorus (a-ooo a-ooooooooo) is sung only twice, once at the very peak of the song and again during its decline -- and right before the first is the line "It came and it went away."
Also sung twice, bracketing the plateau, is the line "The day is long, the bail is set." I think the day is one human life, because the other lyrics are about the stages of life, and the bail is a debt that we pay off by living, engaging with the world of flesh to earn a place in the world of spirit: "Those stars used to be rocks." The title line, "Destin rain, never wet," suggests a life navigated with perfect grace and balance, and every life that comes and goes is part of a seamless unseen circle: "Goodbye, good night, ancient wheel is very tight."
In the name of this band, "blood" is not a sticky red fluid. It has to mean family, and their songs are visions of family connections that go deeper than biology and bigger than the physical universe.
Dark Country Magic (2010)
This is their most popular album, but it sounds to me like they're polishing old ideas more than coming up with new ones. I imagine that after Destin Rain they were like, okay, we'll never top that, so let's clean that house and start a new one. She Wander(er) is a smooth mix of good sounds, and the prettiest song is Coming Home Pt III, but the most interesting songs are the first two:
Oh My Child starts with just Colleen's voice, gradually joined by an electronic sound that will later anchor the Radio Valkyrie album. When I plugged a bunch of Big Blood songs into Shazam, I discovered that Oh My Child was sampled by a German rap duo in this track.
And my favorite is Creepin Crazy Time, which takes the sound from The Grove Is Hotter and Dead Song (and the songwriting from Talking Head Pt I) and amps it up into full-on heavy psych.
Big Blood & The Wicked Hex (2011)
It's said that nobody has two revolutions in them: after Shakespeare wrote Hamlet, he wrote Macbeth, not Waiting For Godot. So maybe one day I'll hear something and say, "Oh, there's where Wicked Hex came from." Because it seems impossible that they could strip their sound down to nothing and build it up so suddenly into something so good. Out of a long stormy hiss comes an electric guitar playing single notes in a hypnotic repeating pattern, then at one minute a deep fuzz bass comes in, and at two minutes the vocal track, all of them spare, deliberate, and powerful. The song is Run, and I can't say if it's a light that will be filtered into later songs, or a sketch over which later songs will be painted.
The first of these is Never Let Me Go. Like Run it's long and slow with a deep bass riff, but it's more minor key and much more atmospheric. On Already Gone II they cover my favorite song when I was 13, Blondie's Heart of Glass, in a swampy voodoo style, but here they cover the style of Heart of Glass, feeding its hypnotic bass echo through a deep sludge filter with razor wire vocals, and the result is the most gothic thing I've ever heard. Listen to Heart of Glass from 2:30-2:45 and Never Let Me Go from 2:45-3:50 and you might understand why I love this band so much: every influence they take, they sound so primal and concentrated that it's like the original artist was blandly copying Big Blood. That part and the part from 4:50-6:10 are the meat of the song, and the three choruses are the shiny black wrapping. The sound also reminds me of Alison Moyet's Winter Kills, and oddly the Doctor Who theme.
Between those two, I Will Love You is a noise rock freakout with banshee howls over chanting and feedback. This could be a medieval vision of what hell sounds like, or it could be a teenage party in the year 2250, or it could be the battle song of the space funk invasion. I can't even tell whose song it is -- Colleen sings lead but the underlying structure is more like Caleb.
Keening is nine minutes of structureless big-throated high vocals over electronic noise. I don't really like it, but I recognize it as a breakthrough that will lead to songs like Twin Skin II and But I Studied.
Water is probably Colleen's most ambitious performance, like an opera aria, fourteen minutes of one epic vocal track over guitar and bass -- like you're on a beach, and the gentle waves rise into deep breakers and then a storm of howling wind and lightning. This is what songs in David Lynch movies are trying to be. I have to remind myself that this sound was made by humans. I think it's extremely sad, but I'm not sure.
Micah Blue Smaldone Split (2012)
Micah is a friend who performed with Fire On Fire and on a few Big Blood albums. He does two songs here and they do three, and this is great stuff. Sister is a dirge by Caleb, holding the center between doomy and pretty and heavy and light. Kentucky Babe is a cover of a song from 1896, with thick reverb making Colleen sound more unearthly than ever.
And The Queen and Her Court is an evolution from the Wicked Hex sound, with chords and vocal soloing like Water, in a verse-chorus structure with an insistent slow rhythm like Run, but much prettier -- I love how the sounds come together at the end of each chorus. The lyrics are so orderly that at first I thought it was a cover, and later I thought it might be an elaborate allegory for the creative process. Now I think it has the same uncommon theme as Beat Happening's Our Secret.
Old Time Primitives (2012)
Old Time Primitives is Big Blood's grooviest and most danceable song. Caleb's other songs are very doomy, and the best is Sirens Knell, which sounds like an orc anthem.
I wonder if Out Of Turn is an outtake from Wicked Hex, because it's the only song on this album with that sound. It adds the same kind of keyboard that's in Old Time Primitives, plus some blistering lead guitar.
Away part I and part II and Leviathan Song part I will reappear with higher numbers on Unlikely Mothers, so I assumed these were early drafts. But in this video from their European tour in 2011, Away already sounds like the 2014 version. So I'm guessing that Away parts I and II are variations on the live version, while Leviathian Song Pt I is the raw song that they would later fill out into Part II.
Radio Valkyrie 1905-1917 (2013)
The second of their ambient albums. Compared to Night Terrors, the sound is richer and more watery. It also reminds me of another fringe couple band, Natural Snow Buildings.
The opener, 40 Days and 40 Nights, is so hypnotic that when I tried to count the verses I kept falling asleep. Cast Iron Hand is the second Big Blood instrumental that reminds me of Yo La Tengo. And on the first listen my favorite was The Mirror Like Sea, a dreamy tapestry of high vocals and whale-like electronics over light psych drone.
Secret Garden is like the definition of psychedelic folk. Usually I can understand a Big Blood song starting with the voices, but for this one I had to start with the music and then hear the vocal track as part of it. "If the world would go away we'd open up... and if the world would open up, the world would go away."
Everything Is Improving doesn't fit here because of its somewhat normal structure, and doesn't fit anywhere else because it combines mouth harp with filthy guitar and Colleen singing like the queen of the underworld. It oddly reminds me of Rush, and it gave me the idea that you can measure a song by the awesomeness of the character who would sing it in a musical.
Fight For Your Dinner vol. I (2014)
No sign of a volume two, and this is one of their funnest albums, with 17 tracks including several covers and non-musical bits. The title song, Fight For Your Dinner, is a dark piano ballad that I imagine being sung by a cartoon feral cat as she moves through a ruined city.
Sick With Information is like a happy campfire song about human extinction, and I think it's the best they've sung together in years. "With almanacs and earthquakes, we will all celebrate the end."
You Need Then It Comes took me a year to appreciate, probably because it's buried in the middle and only three minutes long. The music is clean and heavy like a space battleship, with a mysterious high instrument complementing harmonium and tight electric guitar that bursts in and out of silence. Even though it came before Unlikely Mothers, it seems to be looking beyond it, and I can't fit it into my playlists, so I imagine it's the leading edge of a sound to come.
In Twin Skin I and II, Colleen continues to explore the vocal style from Keening, and in Twin Skin II it blends into a celestial soundscape like robot church music, the most radical song on the album. The evolution of this voice will continue on their next album in the two Watery Downs.
Unlikely Mothers (2014)
This is Big Blood's least experimental album. Where many of their albums are seeking novelty, Unlikely Mothers is seeking synthesis, like they're bringing together components from their whole musical history to build an engine of destruction. The music is both patient and relentless, with all nine songs over seven minutes, and it took me a year of listening to their whole discography to put the album in the right context to appreciate it. I still haven't made it all the way through in one listen. Instead, I've found it's best to get really high and listen to one song over and over.
The opening track, A Watery Down I, is saturated with an Egyptian goddess vibe that sounds a lot like the intro to Zeppelin's In The Light, and also like Koji Kondo's Spirit Temple. At first I dismissed it for its lack of melody or structure, but that's the point -- A Watery Down I is an epic soundscape, a space lullaby that gives us nothing to hold onto but its dreamy whirls and swells. (Sometimes I still get it stuck in my head.)
Away Pt III is thundering psych rock, merging the skull-cracking vocals of Glory Daze, the rambling looseness of Low Gravity Blues, the power of Creepin Crazy Time, and the hypnotic riffing of Run. No other song compels me to sing along like Away Pt III. If I were a UFC fighter this would be my walkout song. Imagine hearing it on the Apocalypse Now soundtrack.
The best way to approach It's Alright is through Neil Young's music with Crazy Horse, like Love And Only Love from Ragged Glory. This is both louder and more compacted.
Leviathan Song Pt II is another evolution from Never Let Me Go, but where The Queen and Her Court lightened the sound, this is just as dark and more stately, with a sharp second guitar track and Colleen really working the low notes. At the end of the song the tone switches from dark to bright, almost like a mirror image of the change in Squeeze Box. "A cycle, a circle."
Thumbnail Moon is nine minutes of industrial sludge, like a powwow of alien cavemen, with awesome doom lyrics. The clearest precedent might be Got Wings.
Steppin' Time Pt II is to Away Pt III as Never Let Me Go is to Run: not as streamlined, but weirder and more complex. The opening is like an approaching thunderstorm (compare it to All Operations), the verses are like a dark imperial march, and overall it's High Gravity Blues, or a synthesis of the most ethereal and aggressive sounds on this album. Here's a live version that's best on computer speakers.
So Po Village Stone takes some of the songwriting from Night Terrors, especially Little Lungs, and some of the sound of Radio Valkyrie, and weaves a glorious tapestry of filth, like a shag carpet on fire. I've been listening to Hawkwind for decades, but So Po Village Stone gave me a new appreciation of their more crusty live songs like Orgone Accumulator.
Endless Echo sounds like two evil wizards battling at the end of time, but I didn't understand it until I did two things. The second was to play it loud, and I actually bought a more powerful stereo mainly to hear this one song louder. And the first thing I did was to study its ancestry. The sound goes at least as far back as the shock-shriek peak of Cerberus Shoal's Baby Gal, and in the Big Blood years it goes back to Don't Trust The Ruin. That song's vocals are the divine light of hippie Satan, nothing can touch them, but it should be possible to put similar vocals to much more powerful music, and I imagine they were patiently circling that goal for seven years. South of Portland packed the sound tighter, I Will Love You unpacked it into free noise, Sirens Knell made a full epic template, and Endless Echo brings it all together, Big Blood's dark sun. "So beautiful through a broken piece of glass."
A Watery Down II is like the vocals from Twin Skin II, backed up by lilting phase guitar like Radio Valkyrie, with a strong heartbeat like Wicked Hex, but the combined effect is like the elves from Haystack escaped to the Pleiades. Big Blood has at least fifty songs with three choruses, and not one with four, but A Watery Down II has five, and every verse is doing something different. At more than 15 minutes, my longest favorite song is also the one I've listened to the most times.
They're not kidding about the title. The song is so aquatic that it could be used to summon whales, and it doesn't even break the surface until the end of the third verse, when the guitar plunges down through sun-lit bubbles until you hear the mermaids sing. This is the happy fade-out music for reality itself, and the downward-pointing words and sounds remind me of an idea from David Abram's Becoming Animal, that gravity is the love of the earth to which all things return. "We owe the night a dream."
Double Days I (2015)
Their music has always had a bit of electronics, but on Radio Valkyrie and Fight For Your Dinner these sounds began shifting from the back toward the front, and now they have arrived. It sounds like they got a good analog synth and did some serious woodshedding before recording this. The opener, On Waterfall's Head, is just Colleen's voice and one keyboard track. Then Rabbit's Foot stacks up the layers into something like cotton candy robot funk.
At the core of the album are two covers, a stunning interpretation of Black Sabbath's Planet Caravan, and a sleepy, slow-building cover of The Cure's Disintegration, which might have the album's only guitar. On this home-recorded album, both surpass the originals in the precision and depth of the sound engineering.
Between those, the near-instrumental For Gardiner Greene Hubbard sounds like a magical robot factory. And the best song is a deep-space anthem mysteriously titled ...But I Studied. It's like a cleaner and more confident evolution from Shadows for the Land and Sirens Knell II. My guess about the title is that they were having fun on this album, but on this song they were trying to challenge themselves. Or was it the other way around?
Double Days II (2015)
Their most consistently happy album adds layers of elegance to their early folk vibe. Compare New Plan from this album with She Wander(er) from Dark Country Magic: the 2010 sound was loose and watery, and the 2015 sound is tight and airy. And to keep themselves from getting accidentally popular, or to remind us what kind of band they are, every major song has radio-unfriendly weird sounds at the end.
Did Caleb have any pretty songs between Night Lighter in 2008 and Sick With Information in 2014? Now he has two more, Endless Peace and Magnetic Green. Under its thick collage of celestial synth and vocals, Magnetic Green is one of the best love songs you'll ever hear. "I will marry your song to my sound / I will bury my roots in your ground."
Time Stands Still is like a wedding song from mystical ancient Scotland, but the lyrics are more like a happy funeral. It's unusual for getting loud all at once instead of gradually, and my favorite bit is where, right after it gets loud, she sings "suffer".
And Go See Boats is a perfect arrangement of top-grade ear candy, as beautifully polished as their early stuff is beautifully raw. The lyrics are based on something Quinnisa said at the ocean, and when I wrote them down I realized they're totally metaphysical: we are all "minor seacoasts" in the ocean of universal consciousness, and to "walk on water" is to fully connect with others, or maybe to die. This is like divine wisdom through Google Translate:
You've got some fun, speak your own
Creation without us untying to your bone
Promise in this day time
Do your things
Human Adult Band split single (2015)
One dark, metallic, catchy song: Half Light Blues. If Kurt Cobain were alive he would cover this.
Elliott Schwartz & Big Blood - Ant Farm (2016)
Right on schedule, after Night Terrors in 2010 and Radio Valkyrie in 2013, another weird ambient album. Of the three, this has the most consistent overall sound. It was made as the soundtrack to an art exhibit about leafcutter ants, and it really does sound like ants. It also reminds me of Suffer Creation, but much more complex and sophisticated. I recommend listening on good headphones.
Two of Big Blood's best albums, Wicked Hex and Unlikely Mothers, both came the year after an ambient album, so I'm hopeful for 2017...
Because their whole albums are so difficult, I approached Big Blood through songs, and this section is the result of many playtests and revisions. The lists seem to be settling into final form, and lately I've been giving more attention to the multi-artist playlists on my favorite songs page. My latest change was to replace Indang Pariman with All Operations.
Introduction to Big Blood: She Said Nothing, Squeeze Box, In The Light Of The Moon, Graceless Lady, The Birds & The Herds, Dead Song, She Wander(er), Run, The Queen and Her Court, Sister, Away Pt III, Go See Boats.
Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun: Full Of Smoke, Hangman, Adversaries & Enemies, Under The Concourse, Oh Country, The Rise of Quinnisa Rose, Song For Baltimore, Sick With Information.
A Watery Down: A Watery Down I, All Operations, Sequins, Don't Trust The Ruin II, Haystack, Destin Rain, A Watery Down II.
Dark Cathedral: Past Time, A Hole In One, No Gravity Blues, Creepin Crazy Time, Never Let Me Go, Water.
Trust The Ruin: Don't Trust The Ruin, Vitamin C, Got Wings?, Low Gravity Blues, South Of Portland, I Will Love You, Sirens Knell, Everything Is Improving, Steppin' Time Pt II, So Po Village Stone, Endless Echo.
Songs by Other Artists
Ideally I want to fit everything into the text above or into playlists. These are the scraps.
The Muffs - Funny Face (1995) I was obsessed with the Muffs in the 90's, and this song was probably my biggest gateway to Song For Baltimore. Kim Shattuck is the best screamer ever, and she and Colleen have similar voices, like the same weird metal was forged into a barbarian hammer and a dark elf blade.
Klaus Nomi - Total Eclipse (1981) Some of what I love about Big Blood, Klaus Nomi was doing a quarter century earlier. In high school I thought this was the worst song in Urgh! A Music War and now I think it's the best.
Ichi - 2 Klaxons (2016) Ichi is not as intense or spiritual, but he has all the childlike creativity of Big Blood's early stuff, with exceptional sound engineering.
Timber Timbre - Grand Canyon (2014) Taylor Kirk's songwriting reminds me of Colleen's darker songs.
Get Well Soon - If This Hat Is Missing I Have Gone Hunting (2008) If I pretend this is a Big Blood song, it's a really good one.
Gravenhurst - Black Holes In The Sand (2004) This song takes folk in the same general direction as Big Blood.
John Matthias - Pre-Loved / Vintage (2014) I'm not sure why this is here except that it's super-obscure and I absolutely love it.
The Lay Llamas - Archaic Revival (2014) Perfect psych drone.
Silver Summit - Child (2012) This sounds more like Colleen's heavy songs than anything else I can find, but it sounds even more like Ex Reverie.
Christina Carter - Second Death (2006) And this sounds more like Colleen's dreamy songs than anything else I can find, except this...
Hop Along, Queen Ansleis - Organ Song (2005) This is the only song by anyone that you could put on a Big Blood album and nobody would guess it wasn't them, and it predates them! Frances Quinlan never did anything else like it, but given what Colleen did with this sound, there was no point.