Major Parkinson - 'Blackbox' Album Review
There are musical compositions across the centuries that have stretched both the imaginations as well as the practical capabilities of music performance. Haydn's 'Creation' was written back in the 18th century and reputedly used over 200 singers and musicians at its premiere, whilst Karlheinz Stockhausen's more recent epic operatic masterpiece 'Mittwoch aus Licht' uses a combination of a string quartet and 4 helicopters in one section - I love the idea that he tried it with 3 helicopters, but it just wasn't quite enough helicopter. But all of this pales into insignificance now because none other than Major Parkinson are back, and if you thought that their 2014 masterpiece 'Twilight Cinema' was 'epic' enough, they've now opted for the 'Supersize' option in a totally monumental, startling and simply groundbreaking release. It's time to peak inside the 'Blackbox'.
Of course I feel compelled yet again to introduce Major Parkinson for the uninitiated. For this is their 4th album, and they are a band who've slowly evolved from the hugely entertaining 'Major Parkinson' album in 2008 to the more progressive and even more complex 'Twilight Cinema' in 2014,. Along the way we've been regailed with tales of Mr January pumping kerosene, the Germans in the attic baking little Joe's and we've all buckled up to watch the roasting jack of hearts - the whole back catalogue is a joyous treasure trove of beguiling delights. And 'Blackbox' has been hugely anticipated by a loyal and devoted set of followers, including I should proudly point out, my 9 year old daughter who knows the lyrics to 'Heart of Hickory' better even than 'Little Mix's' 'Shout out to My Ex', and who both 'literally' and 'for real' jumped with excitement when the Vinyl was finally delivered to our door.
Maybe it's time to consider the music. Well it all opens with 'Lover, Lower Me Down' and a considered theme from synths, before at precisely 2 minutes 30 we're offered our first 'goosebump' moment, when the 'Volve Vokal' choir deliver a fleeting glimpse of a beautiful flowing harmony, and with a glimpse too of violin to follow this feels like a classic 'overture', where the intensity is built gradually with introductions to guitar, synths and choir. 'Night Hitcher' immediately ramps that intensity up further with an increase in pace, and an introduction to one of the brilliant devices that Major Parkinson employ on the album, an almost impossibly complex rhythm, with an unfathomable time signature, which allows the track to evolve and build with different patterns constantly adapting themselves and reformulating in your mind. In 'Before the Helmets' Jon Ivar Kollbatn's vocals are at their most gravelly and deepest, yet from it emerges a beautiful melody, and a preview of the tune we'll later hear in Madeleine Crumbles.
As impressive the opening tracks are, nothing has quite prepared me for what's to come next. Because 'Isabel: A Report to an Academy', is quite possibly the most extraordinary track I've ever heard. Ten minutes long it's just so packed full of themes, intertwined melodies and musical ideas, that you simply have to listen to do it justice. Opening with synths, Kollbatn's inspired whispered lyrics (never 'trust a music teacher who is quoting Nietzsche'), a cello sets out the first of the musical themes, before violin and guitar join and add a complexity to the rhythms, and then Linn Frøkedal's haunting vocals offers another lovely melody, with lyrics to match. But then the real brilliance begins, violin and guitar join together for a solo whilst a new theme from violin with the most subtlest of crescendos, introduces the most inspired addition of a typewriter, complete with the unmistakeable 'end of line ting'. This is then followed by a nursery rhyme style melodic theme, some brilliantly complex twists and a tumultuous climax. The range of emotions I've had during this track have been startling, I've laughed, cried and literally danced around a train station. At one stage when what appears to be a East European folk tune is fleetingly introduced, for some reason I remember the most marvellous Cardiacs gig moment in London once where Tim Smith so enjoyed us dancing around to a similar glorious little tune that he made us dance it in total silence, without the band even playing a note.
But we're not even halfway, and if there's anyone still reading this who hasn't yet listened to the album, well you probably just need to discover the rest for yourself. 'Scenes from Edison's Black Maria' is a clever minimalist inspired instrumental track with shades of Steve Reich, and the upbeat 'Madeleine Crumbles' (the first pre-album single) now makes total sense in the context of the full album, with Linn Frøkedal's vocals the real highlight. 'Baseball' meanwhile is almost as intense and epic as 'Isabel: A Report...', another 10 minutes, again introduced by Kollbatn, before a glorious piano and string theme leads into quite possibly the 20th goosebump moment with a glimpse of a choir harmony, whilst in this track we're offered stage musical themes, yet more inspired brass supported rhythms, and it all rattles along at a breathtaking pace. 'Strawberry Suicide' offers the most lovely of piano themes and a softer track we will grow to really appreciate, whilst the previously reviewed single' Blackbox' is the perfect conclusion, with a startling and thumping climax led by full brass section, and then the softest of endings - because you don't always need a helicopter or four to make the point.
I've written too much of course, and I'd apologise for any self indulgence, but those of you out there who love Major Parkinson will understand, for each of you will have dozens of moments within 'Blackbox' you will personally treasure. For this album is monumental. It is both extraordinary in scale, and extraordinary in delivery - with astoundingly conceived rhythms, wondrous melodies and astonishing musical performances throughout from the collective of musicians, singers and typists. I really never thought that 'Songs from a Solitary Home' or 'Twilight Cinema' could be bettered, but Major Parkinson's evolution, and perhaps even reinvention, is such that they're now delivering music at an inconceivable scale, with the most glorious fusion of ideas and themes. I have no idea how and if 'Blackbox' can ever be 'bettered', but for now that hardly matters, because this is an album to be admired, loved and then cherished for ever.
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