Artist: Coyote Kid
Album: The Skeleton Man
In Brief: A deliciously dark and righteously ragged song cycle about beating Death at his own game. It certainly won’t be for everybody, but I can say with all honesty that the band formerly known as Marah in the Mainsail has surpassed my already high expectations by delivering the most exciting rock record of 2019.
It can be disorienting for a band’s existing fanbase when they decide to change their name. They generally don’t do so without a very good reason, though. Usually because it’s because key members have left and/or there’s been a significant change to the style of music they make. Sometimes it’s because the band has fractured into multiple factions that ended up fighting over who got to keep the name, which is probably one of the worst case scenarios. But sometimes it’s none of those things – you have more or less the same band making the same type of music, and they simply realize the name they chose when they were young and probably not thinking long-term about their career doesn’t really fit them any more. (I could think of some well-established bands nowadays who would probably like to change their name, but they’re popular enough under their existing name that it would basically be career suicide.) This was basically the case for Minneapolis-based band Marah in the Mainsail, who had put out a few album’s worth of rugged and borderline gothic indie rock before they decided, hey, our music doesn’t really have much of a nautical theme before. (Heck, their last album Bone Crown was about violent woodland creatures starting an apocalyptic forest fire – about as far from the ocean as you can get.) With much fanfare on their social media pages, they unveiled their ambitious plan to reboot the band as Coyote Kid, and to crowd-fund a new album called The Skeleton Man. Having been duly impressed by the overall concept and the highly theatrical execution of Bone Crown, I was stoked to see what they’d come up with next, regardless of what name they put it out under. It was certainly a risk, but when the newly christened band’s flagship single “Femme Fatale” dropped this summer, I was pretty much instantly assured it was going to pay off. Somehow the band’s flair for storytelling and their unique blend of a gravelly male vocalist with a sultry female vocalist had joined forces to create a formidably catchy rocker unlike anything I’d heard from the band previously. All fears subsided at that point – this was a perfectly logical progression for them to make, and I couldn’t wait to hear the full album behind it.
Oddly enough, The Skeleton Man is a concept album that takes place in the aftermath of the tragic ending of Bone Crown – so the rebirth of the band isn’t intended to erase their past in any way. As I understand it, the all-consuming wildfire that brought the end of civilization as we knew it on their last album led to the formation of a dystopian society in which The Skeleton Man takes place. The characters are human this time around… well, at least humanoid. Some of them are undead, or possibly cyborgs. There’s a bit of a sci-fi/western/cyberpunk atmosphere to this album, which I love. What I hope will be reassuring to new listeners is that it isn’t necessary to understand the backstory of the previous album, or even the overall concept behind the songs on this album, in order to enjoy The Skeleton Man. The best concept albums are the ones where you can just jump in without knowing anything and find memorable riffs and choruses, and lyrics that make you curious enough to want to know what’s going on, maybe even relate in some way to specific songs, and then if you want to dig deeper into the supplemental materials, it’ll certainly enhance your experience. That’s a tough high wire to walk, and I’ve certainly heard my fair share of ambitious prog rock bands come plummeting down from it after reaching for too lofty of a concept. The essential connecting thread between most of these songs is death, the desperate lengths we go to avoid it, our fears about what might happen after it, and ultimately, our ability to accept that each of us has a time to die and that’s a natural part of life. Coyote Kid certainly runs the gamut of emotions while exploring these concepts – some songs are darkly funny, some drip with irony, some make you want to dance, some are unnervingly aggressive, and there’s even a song that damn near makes me cry. I can totally understand why the subject matter and the somewhat abrasive sound that the band has cultivated isn’t gonna be everyone’s cup of tea – this probably isn’t going to be the type of album I just randomly play in the car for passengers like I do with a lot of my favorite indie bands in the hopes of getting new people hooked. But every time I give it a listen, I’m easily far more entertained and provoked to think in ways that no other album has done for me in 2019. There’s a sense of completeness to it that makes every other record I’ve enjoyed this year pale in comparison.
I guess I haven’t really talked much about the nitty-gritty of the band’s sound much, so for the uninitiated, imagine what might happen if members from a long-forgotten ska band crossed paths with a few folksy troubadours, and they all spent a few years in the looney bin together. The horn sections that pop up on a few tracks definitely remind me of some of the wackier moments from bands like Five Iron Frenzy that I enjoyed back in the day, but it’s far enough removed from any long-forgotten trend to avoid sounding dated. Lead singer Austin Durry, in addition to just being an all-around cool guy who loves to show off his macabre sense of humor and his scenic home state of Minnesota (which I know because we somehow became Facebook friends after a few nice comments I left the band on social media following their last album), is a vocalist who has grown leaps and bounds since Marah’s early material. His grizzly growl is formidable enough that it takes some getting used to, but I’m truly astonished at the amount of control he exerts from song to song on this record, at times leaping out of the speakers when a song calls for a raggedy shout or even an nerve-rattling scream, but not confining the group to any preconceived notions of what hard or heavy rock bands are supposed to sound like. He sails through the smoother melodic portions with genuine class, and sometimes he can switch from pensive, thoughtful Austin to unhinged, crazy Austin on a dime, which keeps things unpredictable. Cassandra Valentine is quite effectively used as a secondary vocalist, sparring with Austin on the aforementioned lead single and taking the lead herself on a pair of tracks in the middle of the album (which is an interesting echo of the structure of Bone Crown, except this time around her songs are more up-tempo). I love it when a band can use multiple vocalists not just to give certain songs a unique flavor, but to actually represent the points of view of different characters, and it’s apparent throughout most of The Skeleton Man that there are a whole host of different characters in play, each feeding off of the experiences and misfortunes of some of the others.
Most importantly, I feel like this album is fascinated with death in a mature way. Sure, these songs make dark jokes and even fantasize about what it would be like to become the Grim Reaper, but they are never so morbid that they imply that life is worthless or that death before its natural time is something to be sought out. These songs aren’t advocating for suicide or a nihilistic existence, as far as I can tell. There are certainly some characters who get themselves in deep enough trouble that you might argue they’re better off dead, but they seem like cautionary tales. When it all gets summed up in the title track at the end, that’s when I realize how adept this band has gotten at making us confront an ugly aspect of life in a way that might just help us to come to terms with it. And that’s when I start to get a bit emotional. (I don’t want to spoil it before I’ve reviewed the rest of the songs leading up to it, though. We’ll get there in due time.)
1. The New Dark Age
The intro track might only be a little over a minute long, but it sets the whole “Spaghetti Western, but in the future” tone of the album nicely, as an eerie, up-tempo instrumental is paired with what sounds like a historical recording of a man lamenting the toll that the fallout from a recent war will take on the British Empire. This reminds me a bit of the snippet from nuclear physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer‘s speech about the effects the invention of the atomic bomb would have on the human race that was used at the beginning of Linkin Park‘s A Thousand Suns, and it makes me wonder if the time period it came from was also around the end of World War II.
2. Femme Fatale
I’ve already hyped the lead single a bit; it’s one of my absolute favorite songs of 2019, so it was hard not to tip my hand early about just how much I loved this song. It has a ton of heavy lifting to do, as it has to kick off the album with a memorable tune while introducing the two main characters we’ll be hearing from over the course of the album. One fatal flaw with a lot of progressive or concept-heavy rock bands is that they can get so lost in the story that the songs lose their ability to stand out individually; that’s certainly not a problem here due to the punchy drums and guitar riffs, the frantic blurting of the trombone, and the way the song immediately draws us into the verses with each singer referring to the other’s character, saying “I knew a girl/boy once” as if they were former lovers, but going on to describe their conflict as some sort of a violent dance, deliberately blurring the lines between bloodlust and regular lust. The way that the two voices spar with each other in the chorus is absolutely brilliant – it’s almost like they’re having a conversation or a passive/aggressive argument: “It takes two to tango/It takes two to swing/It takes two like you and me/My dear monsieur/My femme fatale/Please make this dance complete.” It’s amazing to me how instantly memorable and singable that chorus is despite how quickly the two trade lines back and forth. They may despise each other, or they may secretly miss each other’s company, for all I know, but this song sets up a complex relationship between them, and if there was one thing I’d change about this otherwise fantastic album, it would be to include more tracks that give the two a chance to interact like they do here.
3. Tough Kids
The syncopated thumping of the drums here sets the stage for another action-packed song – once the space between the beats starts to get filled with drum rolls and the lead guitar comes in, I’m sort of expecting an instrumental surf rock number. It’s an ironic influence for a song about a bone-dry landscape that was ravaged by fire long ago, and a couple determined to be the last woman and standing in this hellish, dog-eat-dog society where everyone fights to the death over the few remaining scraps of resources they can manage to find. Durry’s formidable growl has an almost canine quality to it here, befitting the new name of the band – he seems to be barking out the chorus at times and even gives a little vocal flourish that resembles a howl here and there. All of this is apparently being sung in memoriam to “the tough kids who didn’t make it in the dust bowl”. In other words, there have been plenty of other scrappy young individuals like himself who had to grow up fast after the civilization they once knew was utterly destroyed, and despite their tenacity, many of them have not lived to tell the tale.
The next track picks up where the previous one left off, in such a way that you might not even realize a new song has started unless you’re paying very close attention. I love the way they keep the momentum riding high throughout this first stretch of songs, while continuing to raise the stakes in their story so that it’s clear death is imminent at pretty much all times. This song takes on a cautionary tone, singing of a universally-feared prowler who comes to steal bodies away in the night. A few hints are given that it might be some sort of a disease or curse rather than a person, since the song seems to be warning us that a man needs to guard himself against succumbing to the dark side and becoming the very beast he fears getting killed by. While I don’t find this song to be as strong melodically as most of the rest of the album, I appreciate how keeping the tempo up throughout this stretch of the album helps to increase the sense of dread and the need to act quickly lest that prowler catch up to you.
5. Strange Days
If I had to pick a single song to show off Austin Durry’s range as a vocalist, this would definitely be it. He goes from a bourbon-soaked croon to a full-throated primal yell in this song, and it’s remarkable how well it brings together the band’s tendency to make heavy but not traditionally “hard” rock with a bit of restraint that only adds to the creepiness. At its quietest, this song gets stripped down to the bare strumming of a single note on a guitar; at its loudest, it feels like this thing could be used to raze buildings! The syncopated drum beat is a nice change of pace from the steady 4/4 we’ve heard throughout the record thus far; I would say it gives the song a touch of soulfulness, at least if that “soul” belongs to a member of the undead. When the guitar melody underpinning the verse kicks in, I immediately get flashbacks to the Bone Crown track “Ember”, and if I’m not tripping and that is the same melody, I’m duly impressed at how they’ve repurposed it from what was originally a terrifying ballad about a fire consuming the forest, giving us listeners who knew the band in their past life a bit of a link to the story that sets this album up. The chorus certainly isn’t for the faint of heart, with Austin belting out “STRAAAAAAANGE DAAAAAAAAAAYS are here to STAAAAAAAAAYYYYYYYY! EMMMMMMBRAAAAACE the vultures of culture and RAAAAAAAAAAGE!”, but what’s impressive here is that he’s not just indiscriminately shouting – the way his voice slides from one note to another during those long, ragged shrieks demonstrates an incredible balance of power and precision. This is definitely the heaviest track on the album – though not the grimmest. Hold on to your hats folks, because things are about to get even weirder.
6. Dark Science
Now that we’ve been duly welcomed to this “new dark age”, it’s time for a little change in perspective. The next two songs feature Cassandra on lead vocals, in her role as the crow. Her voice may be much mellower than Austin’s, but her character’s motives are far more sinister, even if she spends the entirety of this song trying to assure us, “There’s no need to be afraid, it’s just dark science.” Basically, she’s trying to defend her practice of reanimating corpses by cobbling together whatever parts she needs from various biological sources (both human and animal), and a bit of wiring and some electricity. She may sound cheerful enough in describing her work, but the music, while upbeat, is incredibly ominous. The lack of heavy guitar here is actually quite conspicuous – in the chorus, the main riff is played on the bass, so that it’s pretty much all rhythm section and some weird electronic distortion in the background. At first this seemed like a glaring absence of something expected, but I’ve come to appreciate how it helps to prevent Sandra’s voice from getting overpowered by the instrumentation, while emphasizing the low end of the audible scale as a contrast to the vocal.
7. Electric Lover
One of the album’s creepiest and most thrilling moments comes in this waltz-like ballad, where we learn that the Crow is not only a mad scientist, she’s also practicing her dark art for very personal reasons. Apparently she’s brought someone back to life whom she loved and who was taken from her, and now she’s faced with the task of filling this undead creature in on who he was to her in his past life – either that, or it was just some random stranger all along and she fell in love with him over the course of the experiment. Either way, this is her version of a love song to her Groom of Frankenstein, and it’s every bit as shudder-inducingly cool as the sadistic turn “Bone Crown” took on the track “The Great Beyond”. Similar to that standout track from the band’s last effort as Marah in the Mainsail, Austin’s voice comes back in at the end, apparently singing in response to his new master that he will live on to carry out her dark deeds. The stage is now set for a bone-chilling battle between the forces of darkness and, uh… slightly less darkness.
8. Vision in Black
“Death doesn’t make mistakes” is the thesis of this slow-building song, which starts out as a ballad with a lone electric guitar, adds in some acoustic tremolo and mournful trumpet, and gradually turns into a menacing sing-along. Here we return to our main character voiced by Austin, who has apparently met his match. Death has caught up with him, he’s bleeding out, and the vultures are circling. But there’s a twist! Just when we think he’s about to breathe his last, he makes mention of a deal made with the Grim Reaper, where they basically trade places as the bony white skeleton who had approached him to usher him into the afterlife withers and fades away. So like, is this how being Death works? You find some poor unlucky sap about to die before their time to pass the job onto when you’re tired of doing it yourself and you decide immortality is boring? Is it like a Dread Pirate Roberts sort of deal, but instead of retirement, you simply cease to exist? Fascinating stuff.
9. Destroyer of Worlds
If you could play a tango with rock instrumentation, then I guess this is how it would sound. It gives the song a whimsical vibe that fits its morbidly humorous lyrics about the new Death’s first day on the job. “I have become Death”, Austin observes in the first verse – and now I know why Oppenheimer first came to mind when I was listening to the intro track, because he’s famous for quoting the passage from the Hindu scripture: “Now I am become death, destroyer of worlds.” But the twist to this song is that he doesn’t get to the “destroyer of worlds” part until the end, because he’s too busy trying to figure out how to look and act the part, getting his bony frame fitted for a suit and all that, because “Death comes free of charge, but I want to look the part.” He’s clearly fascinated with his new job, but also kind of in over his head. Does he actually know what he’s doing? Maybe not, because…
…suddenly death is so random and commonplace that the looming threat of it is apparently driving people insane. The new Grim Reaper either has horrible timing, or just not-so-great-aim. That’s my best guess at what is going on in this maniacally upbeat song that sounds like rockabilly and swing music thrown into a blender set to its highest speed. It’s unrelenting and it’s insane and it’s actually kind of fun. But it also might contain the most unnerving moment on the album, when Austin appears to take on the role of an asylum director in the bridge, where he barks out an absolutely loony rant about what will happen to the inmates if they don’t take their meds. So basically it sounds like your two choices are, go insane trying to avoid death and end up needing to be heavily sedated just to survive, or accept that death is actually the better option.
Even though we don’t hear directly from the Crow in the back half of the album, her presence is felt in this song, which is apparently a glimpse into her dysfunctional relationship with the Coyote Kid, and how he utterly failed to resist her manipulative tendencies back when they were together. Removed from the overall story arc, it’s simply a rather scathing song about a guy who becomes an extreme doormat in order to keep a girl happy, and it’s way more fun than it has any right to be, mixing gritty, driving alt-rock with peppy horns, a la Five Iron Frenzy after the turn of the century. (This one would be fun to contrast with some of their sad sack relationship songs such as “Pre-Ex-Girlfriend”.) I keep wanting to call this song “Wrong Kind of Girl”, since that’s what the chorus says he fell in love with, but the title “Backbone” is significant, since it’s typically a metaphorical representation of a person’s willpower and ability to stand up for themselves, and in this case it might actually be literal – she’s trying to build her ideal man and if that means replacing parts of his spine with other bits and pieces that are more to her liking, then so be it. The song also makes mention of her replacing his knees and, in the most humorous line of the entire record, Austin sings, “I heard your balls drop out and she was there to take their place”. (I mean, I don’t have a lyric sheet in front of me, so it could actually be “bowels”, but either way he’s lost a pretty significant part of himself that would be a rather embarrassing thing for a man to not have.) I love how this song works on two levels – within the story and also in a metaphorical sense outside of it. When you let another person control you in a relationship, you aren’t truly yourself, and even if none of us can relate to the travails of post-apocalyptic wanderers or the undead, far too many of us know what it’s like to become people-pleasers and end up losing ourselves in the process. (One piece I’m not sure about is the repeated urging, “You should have burned her picture.” Burning an image of someone may have some supernatural significance in this album’s world, in terms of releasing yourself from the power someone has over you; I’m not sure what it would signify if you heard this outside the context of the album, though.)
I love the dark, repeating bass and guitar lines in this song. Props to the other Austin in the band – Austin Wilder – who plays bass and provides backing vocals, because his stamp is all over this song, especially when the group vocals come in at the end just to drive home the urgent cries of “You better run!” In the present, it seems like the Coyote Kid’s nemesis has finally caught up to him, as the song opens with him bleeding from a bullet hole in his neck, and he sees a small-framed but truly frightening woman off in the distance, holding the smoking gun. His ex has finally caught up to him, and whatever plans she has for his remains, they can’t be good. So he appears to be using his dying breath to warn anyone and everyone he can to get the hell out of Dodge, NOW, before they suffer the same fate. This is another track where I’m genuinely impressed with Austin Durry’s vocals. The low, creaky tone of it when he holds a note on the word “run” in the chorus is yet another one of the album’s many spine-tingling moments, and later in the song he jumps an octave as the band brings that chorus to its final conclusion. For several songs in a row now he’s walked that fine line between control and chaos, and I figure it’s hard for most bands to find a frontman who can pull this sort of thing off with just the right amount of aggression, and without killing the inherent stick-in-your-head quality of a song like this.
13. Skeleton Man
The title track is a true gut-punch. Musically, it’s more reserved than most of the album, opening on a simple acoustic strum in 3/4 time, then building up gracefully with the snare drums and a little fanfare from the horns making it sound like a semi-upbeat take on a funeral march. This isn’t too far removed from the sort of thing The Decemberists might have come up with in their prime (and of course the preoccupation with death would be right up their alley, too). Austin really catches me off guard as the story comes full circle, and the man who had managed to cheat Death and then become Death faces the fact that this might be his final day. He waxes sentimental as he replays memories of different times he encountered Death throughout his lifetime, coming to see him as a friend when he really has no one else there for him, but also finding that relationship strained due to the ways he’s weaseled out of dying when it was supposed to be his time. (I tell you, the line about first encountering Death as a kid when he loses his favorite childhood pet damn near made me weep. That’s the kind of detail a songwriter doesn’t put into a story unless there was some true life experience behind it.) What’s really fascinating to me is how not scary this song is. It’s a graceful and strangely peaceful way to end an incredibly dark album, even though we know our main character is dying. As he tries to plead one last time for death to take the long way around and not remove him from this mortal coil just yet, he also realizes that in his final rest there will be “No need to stress, no need to worry.” And that’s when this album full of macabre, otherworldly characters finally hits home for me. After all this man has seen, he’s finally come to a sense of peace about his own death. He doesn’t want to rush it, and he’ll certainly take an out if one is offered to him, but if his luck has truly run out and it’s his time to go, he’s gonna face it with dignity and even a little solace. Really stopping to think about this makes me all kinds of emotional, and there aren’t that many songs like that one, that seem to do that to me literally every time I listen to them. I’ve never felt the way this character has come to feel about death, personally. I have this feeling that I’m supposed to, considering my Christian upbringing and the faith I still hold to today – I’ve claimed all this time to believe that life is eternal and death on this Earth is just a transition from mortal life to immortal life. But there’s a part of me that, if you told me tomorrow I had some terminal disease and only a few months to live or something, would feel very cheated and pissed off. There’s something there that I haven’t worked through yet. So coming to terms with the notion that my time, too, will come someday seems like one of those important life goals that I’d really like to achieve before I actually have to stare death in the face for myself. It’s a profound aspect of life that none of us can escape, and I’m blown away by how much this song has really helped me to put words to my feelings on the subject.
WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
The New Dark Age $.50
Femme Fatale $2
Tough Kids $1.25
Strange Days $1.50
Dark Science $1.50
Electric Lover $1.75
Vision in Black $1
Destroyer of Worlds $1.25
Skeleton Man $1.75
Austin Durry: Lead and backing vocals, guitars
Cassandra Valentine: Lead and backing vocals, keyboards
Austin Wilder: Bass, backing vocals
John Baumgartner: Trombone
Kian Dziak: Drums
LISTEN FOR YOURSELF: