Review: Nathaniel Johnstone's Narratives
A Riveting Retelling of Dark Fairy Tales and Fantastical Folklore
Nathaniel Johnstone is likely familiar to most steampunk music fans as the former guitarist/violinist/anything else with strings from Abney Park.
If you were ever fortunate to meet or hear Nathanial solo while he was splitting his time between that Famous Band and other solo endeavors (his own Nathaniel Johnstone Band, performing as a solo musician, and performing with, among others, The Ghosts Project, Jill Tracy’s Malcontent Orchestra, Ego Likeness, Jody Ellen, Android Lust, The Last Dance, The Hellblinki Sextet), you already know that as eclectic as he was while with AP, his output there gave only a glimpse of what this most virtuosic musical chameleon is capable of producing. Full disclosure: I backed Nathaniel’s independent and successful crowd funding of this release.
In a sentence, Narratives is, in the most wonderful sense, about expecting the unexpected. Each track features an alternate take on familiar fairy tales and mythology. While this is becoming an increasingly familiar device, it works, and can inspire a variety of artistic points of departure. That, along with a supremely danceable and groove oriented album, is exactly what Narratives delivers.
Gepetto’s Lament begins with a simple, driving electronica beat that wouldn’t be out of place in Nine Inch Nails. As the relatively exotic elements of hand drums and mandolin enter, this song has all the feel of Nathaniel’s old band (which is a compliment; I’ve always liked Abney Park’s fusion of Arabic music and electronica and dark rock music.) Were you new to Nathaniel’s music, I think you could be forgiven for assuming this would simply be Nathaniel’s take on AP’s very successful formula, with just a slightly different sonic signature.
Happily, you could not be more wrong, as the next track, Baba Yaga takes us into a sonic world more reminiscent of Concrete Blonde. The violin, banjo, and mandolin orchestration, however, anchor the musical imagery firmly in the Russian countryside. The album is full of these seemingly contradictory musical styles, but in Nathaniel’s hands, it should come as no surprise they work, and beautifully. Lyrically, this famous tale of a Russian witch (at least, if you’re into Mussorgsky), introduces us to the wicked witch archetype, with a few more mythological details making a welcome addition.
Jody Ellen contributes vocals to Red, which deserves it’s own sequence in True Blood, preferably at Fangtasia. This take on Red Riding Hood turns the hunter and hunted roles around in a nice and twisted way. It would be criminal not to hear this in a burlesque performance. And another fantastic aspect of Nathaniel’s music, at least to my ear: you’ll hear at least 3 genres fused together in each song, yet each genre is thoroughly loved and lived. Each gesture contains all sorts of sly and intelligent musical acknowledgements: there’s homage to great blues lyrics, as the phrase under my hood takes on multiple meanings here (on the first listen, I couldn’t help but think of Terraplane Blues/Trampled Underfoot).
Amanita Ocreata (death angel) is a three-section suite beginning with a mandolin/violin dialogue, before moving into a progressive metal groove with a variety of ethnic soloing. Were I to get all analytical, I’d say these next three songs form a kind of polywork, with the Angel of Death framing and presenting a musical structure for this instrumental, the next song, and finally, Beast.
Amanita Ocreata segues into Gamal (a derivative of the Arabic name Jamal, or beauty), which is dominated by stark piano textures, mysterious acoustic guitar, and eventfully (perhaps inevitably) moving into a groove that would be at home in A Thousand and One Nights. Nathaniel notes the album began as collaboration with Tempest, artist and fusion dancer par excellence. The previous two tracks are great examples of songs that vividly invoke choreography in the imagination.
Of course, in a fairy tale world, we can’t have our beauty without a Beast. Beast is a brooding, heavy and driven Goth-rock song. By now, the thought of film-noir piano juxtaposed over heavily distorted bass should feel perfectly normal. If you’re an aspiring composer struggling with the lines between plagiarism and homage, I respectfully offer Beast up as an example of how to do it right. The distorted bass and driven feel of Beast contrasts with the flow and exotic whirl of Gamal. Hopefully, these two are paired together on setlists to come! The beauty and the beast theme is echoed in several places in the orchestration: delicate piano and synth pads are paired over aggressive distorted bass, and the addition of ethereal backing vocals to duet with the male lead is a nice touch.
Bastard Jack is a retelling of Jack and the Beanstalk, assuming Trent Reznor was retelling the story. There’s also shades of Peter Murphy and Adrian Belew in Nathaniel’s vocals, which is a great match for the musical environment of Narratives. Bastard Jack is also a great example of an artist sharing influences, but blending enough streams together to make something new.
Frog and Toad is, gleefully and unrepentantly, my favorite song offered here. I don’t need to wonder what would happen if Rammstein were to be commissioned to write a heartwarming tale of friendship any longer, and for this, I’m supremely happy. It’s hardly the representative track on Narratives; if you’re the sort that wants every track to sound the same, this collection isn’t for you. But the humor and quirky send up of a style that is guilty of taking itself way too seriously is brilliant. Were I an EBM DJ, I would play this track all the time.
I loved the Zappa stunt guitar shout out for Cleetus Hartwood in the digital credits, which brings me to my minor quibble with Narratives, which, admittedly, has nothing to do with the music itself:
There is a section directing you to nathanieljohnstone.com for lyrics and song details, but as of this writing, the reviewer did not find them. On a collection this wonderfully expansive and nuanced, I’d like to read song-by-song credits for each performer (I’m assuming Mel is the lead vocalist on Baba Yaga, being the only other female vocalist in the credits. I hate assuming, and I’d love to give credit where credit is due, the vocals were amazing.). And I enjoyed the production enough to want to know who mixed and mastered this (It had to be challenging, as the “band” changes sounds nearly every track. Wonderful for the composers, and monumental challenge for the sound tech. No set it and forget it here). And as multifaceted as the lyrics are, I’d love something along the lines of an annotated program note for Narratives. Then again, I’m a sucker for those kinds of things.
But in the end, that’s a minor, minor quibble, because the music is superbly evocative and memorable. The packaging and artwork design is first rate, my minor griping aside (bravo Tempest!).
Narratives closes with the nine minute meditation One Time Through, which combines a plaintive and bittersweet longing, which feels like a gentle awaking out of the land of fairy tales. This song perfectly captures the last ride of the day feeling, or last song at the faire.
Narratives manages the difficult task of balancing textured music and allusions that amply repay repeated listens with infectious grooves and riffs, that is, it’s both accessible and nuanced. Highly recommended.