Possessor of a rich and varied CV/pedigree, with stints in Iron Monkey, Electric Wizard and The Varukers among the better known of his former outfits, multi-instrumentalist and core driving force Justin Greaves has focused his energies into the ever-shifting collective Crippled Black Phoenix for nigh on eight years now.
Slipping through the net of genre labelling, the band’s expansive and cinematic meanderings have been branded post-rock, alt-prog, neo-psychedelia, freak-folk and doom – indicators enough of the diversity and scant self-reference that informs their journey thus far.
Following rapidly on the heels of this year’s earlier release, (Mankind) The Crafty Ape, that saw the band pursue a more conceptual proggy approach (albeit of a grittier political bent than your average 70s bong-fest), this ‘mini’ (six tracks, 45 minutes) album, in true Phoenix style, steps sharply away from that format.
Instrumental 12-minute opener How We Rock (the sole track that justifies true prog comparisons) shimmers into view through a languid haze before easing into a warm and bluesy Gilmour-esque guitar workout of a particularly (early) Floydian nature. But just before matters turn horizontal, a crisp little circular dampened riff adds an urgency and edge that builds to suitably melodramatic heights. The latest regeneration in a lineage of vocalists – John E Vistic – is introduced next, bringing an emotive, dishevelled tremolo to the initially sombre Hold On, shifting quickly into a choir-led anthem that holds up a dark mirror to some of Elbow’s or U2’s more sugary moments.
It’s this subtle unpredictability that never jars or smacks of tokenism that best defines the band’s mercurial abilities: this is difficult shit to pull off. For sure, it can prove unsettling for less adventurous souls used to tighter delineated packages, but of course, the flipside of the effort is the reward. Elsewhere on the album, Greaves has drawn another ace on the vocal front: Belinda Kordic, whose ethereal textures draw from the same well as Mazzy Star’s Hope Sandoval and a take-your-pick of current left-of-centre chanteuses.
Throw in a large dose of aggression and heaviness at the album’s close and you have a surprisingly cohesive yet disparate collection, showcasing some serious talent and a refreshing fearlessness in approach and execution. Here’s to the next incarnation.