Artist: Marah in the Mainsail
Album: Bone Crown
In Brief: A fascinatingly dark concept album, whose tale of animals vying for control of the forest is told in a gritty, muscular indie folk/rock style that shows more vocal and instrumental diversity than Marah’s first record. Every listen reveals something new.
Marah in the Mainsail is a six-piece indie rock band from Minnesota that seems to fly even further under the radar than a lot of the indie rock bands I cover. I first heard of them two years ago, when their debut album Thaumatrope topped a friend’s best-of list at the end of 2015 – I can only imagine he heard of them through word of mouth as well, because the band doesn’t even have a Wikipedia page yet, or seem to tour terribly far beyond the northern Midwest as far as I can tell. I feel like they deserve more exposure. The rugged, gravelly vocals of lead singer Austin Durry might be a tough sell for some listeners at first, but they certainly fit the “outlaw traveler hunting for ancient pirate ghosts” aesthetic that I think the band was going for on Thaumatrope, and they’re suitably menacing on the group’s new album Bone Crown. This band has a flair for the theatrical, at times reminding me of the rough-hewn folk/rock of The Last Bison or the darkly poetic cautionary tales of The Decemberists – both bands that also had to grow on me due to their vocalists being an acquired taste. mewithoutYou might be a good comparison as well – there doesn’t seem to be a screamo origin story behind Marah in the Mainsail, but if a band were to stake its claim somewhere between rootsy folk music and post-hardcore, they’d end up in pretty similar territory to what I’m hearing here. A strong dash of horns and a bit more dynamic range in the instrumentation overall, plus an expanded role for backing vocalist Mariah Mercedes, make Bone Crown a more sophisticated release than Thaumatrope, which might not grab the listener with hooks as immediate as that album’s standout track “The Traveling Man”, but which holds highlights waiting to be found on the loud and soft ends of the spectrum for listeners willing to delve into the story and give it a few tries in order to fully understand what’s going on.
The story told on Bone Crown is a dark and unsettling one indeed. It seems like something out of an old fable at first, due to all of the animal characters populating the forest where the album’s story take place, but as they get into altercations with one another that give way to vindictive murder plots, it becomes clear that this is not the Disney version of the animal kingdom by any means. I wouldn’t say that Marah’s lyrics are graphic, per se, but the story takes increasingly dark turns as it goes on. It’s certainly a captivating story, because of how well the instrumentation swings back and forth from rowdy and rhythmic to quiet and ominous, and then back again, but don’t go into it expecting a miraculous happy ending. Do go into it expecting a strong musical performance. (I’m really bummed that Iron & Wine already used the album title Beast Epic, because that title would me a much better fit for this one.)
Bone Crown isn’t perfect – there are a few choruses that don’t quite stick the landing and a few muted moments that can cause you to turn your volume up only to have to turn it down again pretty soon afterwards. But it’s certainly a steady improvement, considering that the band’s sound on Thaumatrope had diminishing returns for me once the record was about halfway over. This one’s not terribly long, at 11 tracks and right around 40 minutes, but it feels like a more complete work, thought through at a much deeper level of detail. As I’ve listened to Bone Crown over the past several months, I’ve gone from being mildly interested in it to strangely fascinated with it, slowly realizing it’s becoming one of my favorite albums of the year. It really took me by surprise, and I hope that I can bring it to the attention of more folks who will be similarly intrigued by the story this band has to tell.
Now before I dig into the individual tracks, I suppose a spoiler alert as in order. It’s difficult to discuss these songs in detail without alluding to key plot points, and to be fair, I only understand some of these plot points because the band was gracious enough to provide an audio narration which can be downloaded from their website. This explains the characters and their motivations a little more clearly, in ways you might not necessarily glean from the songs themselves. I still think it’s worth listening to the album a few times before the narration, but either way, if you don’t want my clumsy attempts to recap the story coloring your first impressions of it, don’t read on until you’ve had a chance to listen for yourself.
(And I suppose a trigger warning is also in order. I recognize the weird timing of my reviewing – and getting so much enjoyment out of – an album that describes a destructive wildfire in vivid terms, when it seems like half of L.A. is still reeling from the destruction that unusually dry weather has wrought at a time of year where this sort of thing really shouldn’t be happening. If you’ve been affected by that or a similar disaster, this might be a difficult record for you to stomach. End trigger warning.)
1. The Beginning
For a band with such a rugged sound, you may be surprised to hear it open with muted piano, and their female vocalist front and center. I suspect that these quieter moments might be meant as flashbacks, or in this case to set up the frame story, in which the scene is set – there was was a fox “With eyes of jade and fur to match the flames” who reigned over the forest despite his small stature, with a wise owl at his side to counsel him. The owl has a repeated dream of the forest meeting a horrific, fiery end, which sets the stage for the action to start.
2. Fox Hole
The intro segues beautifully into the first full song, which is my favorite track on the album. It’s hard to resist the lively drum beat and the trumpet fanfare heralding the great fox king as he sits on his ivory throne, concocting a plan to save his woodland kingdom from the owl’s doomsday prophecy. Austin’s fierce voice gives the fox a presence beyond his meek stature – it’s all posturing and it’s meant to be. He sings with bravado – I just love the guy’s rough vibrato as the verse segues into the chorus, since I felt like I haven’t heard this sort of vocalist do something like that since the heyday of grunge music – and the whole band seems to get in on the premature celebration of everyone’s supposed salvation.
Here the perspective shifts to the bear, the other main character in our story. It’s the first hint that there will be violent blows traded between the creatures as the story unfolds, since the main thrust of it is about knowing when to pick fights and when to only bare your claws in defense of yourself. A young bear recalls being taught by his mother, “Never throw the first punch, but always throw the last” as he explores the edges of the woods he calls home and happens upon a village of primitive apes (e.g. humans) who are, from his perspective, quite puny and not as threatening as the legends of these mythical creatures foretold. The guitar is a little muddier here, and the beat jauntier, which would make the perfect soundtrack for the mayhem that follows as the bear decides to maul the village, leaving only a lowly woodcutter alive to tell the tale. The voice of his mother seems to echo in his ears, lamenting the decision: “I raised him tough and I raised him mean, but revenge is all he could see.”
4. Everybody Knows
This track has a more menacing, mid-tempo beat. You can hear a bird calling in the background at different points throughout the song, and the trumpet is blaring away, like a scout trying to spread the news far and wide that a dangerous predator is within their midst. Here the bear’s past catches up with him, as his old friends confront the rumors of his violent ways: “You’ve got everything those wicked men were looking for.” Even though the bear has, for some strange reason, befriended the woodcutter whose village he mauled, leading to an odd sort of surrogate parent/child relationship between them, this isn’t enough to shake the reputation he’s earned as a fearsome man-killer.
The sound of this song, which starts as a slower guitar ballad but builds gradually to something more menacing, seems a little more “thin” or perhaps lo-fi. It’s not mixed all that great, to be honest – I have to turn it up to really hear what’s being sung at the beginning of it. But this may be intended as a sort of aural cue that it’s coming from a different narrative perspective. The song seems to focus on the owl’s prophecy of the “leviathan” – a mythical demonic snake that is meant to represent the doomsday fire.
Austin’s growly voice comes out stronger and stronger as the woodland creatures grow more restless, leading the fox to decide something must be done about all of the panic that the owl is causing. His warning that “It’s all gonna end in the end” is a nice bit of foreshadowing for what’s to come, though at the same time, it’s a bit of a duh statement. They probably could have come up with a more powerful way to phrase it than that, because by definition everything ends in the end whether those things are good or bad.
6. Brave Little Buck
The two tracks in the center of the album are perhaps most surprising due to how Mariah once again takes the lead, and how both of them are quieter and mostly set aside the rough-and-tumble rock sound that the band has made their signature. This one was deliberately designed to sound very cutesy and innocent – almost a Disney song, by Austin’s own admission. Mariah plays the role of a sweet young doe that the titular buck encounters in the forest – he makes advances toward her but she rejects them, playing off of the buck’s insecurities about not being as strong or as desirable of a mate than his father, the stag who wore the original bone crown and ruled the forest as king. This is most definitely a flashback, since the fox now wears those horns, and it soon becomes clear that this is all a ploy to prey on the young buck in order to gain leverage against his father. Apparently the fox was behind the whole thing. I actually don’t mind the “thinner” production here since the song is meant to sound kind of “old-timey”, like something you’d happen across on an old phonograph (well, except for the electric guitar, I guess). It does a good job of catching the listener off guard, because they have to slowly realize that something far more menacing lurks beneath the surface of this otherwise innocuous song.
7. The Great Beyond
The piano outro of the previous track segues perfectly into an even slower, more ominous ballad, which drops all pretense of being cute as it finds Mariah openly singing threats against anyone who would challenge the fox’s authority: “I don’t want to hurt you, but I will if I must.” The melody here feels like a twisted reflection of the intro track, and the “La-la-la”s in her refrain, while they would be lovely in any other context, only add to the slightly unhinged feeling of it all. When Austin’s voice suddenly comes roaring near the end, it’s a startling moment, as if the fox is done whispering threats and is now shouting them for the entire kingdom to hear. It’s the moment where absolute power has finally gotten to his head, and the whole story about the poor buck being ensnared was apparently being told to serve as an example of the owl, the bear, or anyone else who would threaten to cross him. The level of theatricality here as the carnival-like horns and organs come in reminds me of Anathallo, surprisingly enough. (I really miss those guys.) Then it very suddenly drops into an upbeat section for the final verse, which is an excellent way to get the audience amped up for the third act.
8. Bone Crown
I could mention in pretty much every track how thrilled I am that the band has decided to emphasize the use of horns in their music – but that’s especially the case here. John Baumgartner‘s trombone is a slippery, nasty beast to behold here as it keeps time with the song’s demented circus waltz. The 3/4 beat is almost a schoolyard taunt – it’s unnerving and amusingly upbeat at the same time. The struggle for power between the fox and bear really comes to a head here, with each getting a paragraph explaining how they know each other’s dark and sinister pasts and can anticipate all of the tricks each other might be up to in the present. The fox, sensing a challenger to his throne, seems to be bluffing the bear by saying he would rather let the entire forest burn than lose his throne. The bear seems to call that bluff, borrowing a trick he learned from the human, whose sole useful purpose was apparently his ability to harness the power of fire.
The end of the song is a near descent into madness, with all of the voices crying in unison: “Burn the woods! Burn them slow! Burn the trees! Burn the bones! Burn the Earth!” Cue maniacal laughter. I don’t know how a songwriter comes up with something this demented… but I love it.
9. Black Mamba
One of the album’s best jams is also the action-packed climax of its story. The command to burn everything down has been given, it’s now past the point of no return for the denizens of this forest kingdom, and what ensues is a mad race to get out alive. The song is up-tempo and yet unrelentingly dark at the same time, and I love just about everything about it – it’s got one of Austin’s best vocal melodies with Mariah doing a stellar job on BGVs, some truly meaty and menacing bass, and lots of hissing/buzzing percussion sounds to bring the horrific inferno to life. Fire has been alluded to as a snake – sort of a character in its own right – throughout the album, and I this song is where the “Shape shifting shadow snakes” (God, I love the alliteration there) finally appear as foretold by the owl all those years.
Now all of the damage has been done, and the bridges have quite literally been burned. If I’m understanding the story correctly, only the bear and a badly beaten owl have survived, and they are now surveying the desolate landscape they just barely managed to escape. As a slow, mournful guitar melody plays, the bear thinks about going home, but realizes that he doesn’t want to face the ashen landscape and the charred bodies of his former friends. The thumping and rattling percussion help to paint an eerie picture of the dark fate that has now been sealed for the once thriving woodland. The “burn the woods!” chant from the title track is reprised here, which is odd to me since that already happened – but perhaps the bear is reliving his regrets at letting the conflict escalate so suddenly. There’s really no going back at this point. No hope for a happy ending. I have to wonder if this is all an allegory of some sort.
11. The End
The album’s somber ending is a final eulogy for the sad kingdom, robbed of its potential by the power-hungry forces that tore it apart, now entombed beneath a sea of ash.
Mariah’s vocals echo Austin’s in almost a whisper here, as their melody reprises the one from her intro track. (The trumpet fanfare from “Fox Hole” gets a sad reprise here – there are probably references to other tracks that I’m not catching here as well. In general they’ve done an ace job of embedding little references from one song in another, and I think doing this sort of thing well without it getting too repetitive is the mark of a strong concept album.) The prophecy is now fulfilled, but a question seems to linger about whether there’s been a lesson learned and whether such a horrible thing could ever happen again. As I mentioned earlier, the phrase “It’s all gonna end in the end” doesn’t quite get at the heart of the moral this story seems like it’s trying to teach us. It feels very fatalistic, even though the point of it seems to be that if we can keep the big egos and violent appetites running the world in check, we primitive apes just might be able to avert a similarly fiery fate.
WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
The Beginning $.50
Fox Hole $2
Everybody Knows $1.25
Brave Little Buck $1.50
The Great Beyond $1.75
Bone Crown $1.50
Black Mamba $1.75
The End $.75
Austin Durry: Lead vocals, guitar
Mariah Mercedes: Vocals, organ
Austin Wilder: Percussion
John Baumgartner: Trombone
Kian Dziak: Drums
Austin Tang: Bass
(Wow, seriously, they have three Austins? I feel like there should be limits on these things.)
LISTEN FOR YOURSELF: