True Frost, The: …In Eternal Strife (CD, 2005)

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TRUE FROST in eternal strifeThere’s never been anything fancy, innovative, progressive or musically overly ambitious in German black metal group The True Frost. Instead, they’ve built their lengthy but not overly productive career on the concept of keeping things straightforward, raw and true to the core concept of black metal. And that’s something you have to respect when done with the kind of uncompromising attitude The True Frost display.

It’s actually quite simple to describe their sound: a combination of Darkthrone-styled, raw and ugly second wave black metal, and a distinctly German sound in which you can hear similarities to acts such as Absurd and Dämonenblut. Especially the vicious snarling vocals of vocalist Chraesvelgoron remind one of the two aforementioned German acts, and the Hellhammer/Celtic Frost -influenced plodding beat of a track like opener Wiedergänger certainly hark back to Darkthrone.

So there’s nothing here you haven’t hear before if you’ve familiarized yourselves with most of the classics of 90’s black metal. To some, that might be reason enough to dismiss The True Frost as a second rate act not worth wasting time on. Maybe that’s fine, but the fact is that The True Frost have over the years honed their take on black metal into a very decent if quite unoriginal sound, and demonstrate it in fine form on …In Eternal Strife. It’s not an essential album or something you must hear at least once, but if you do come across it, it’s certainly worth giving at least one spin.

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Tim Steinfort: When The Rain Falls (CDr, 2014)

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TIM STEINFORT when the rain fallsMost famous for his now-defunct Oi! group with the awkward name of Discharger, Steinfort expanded his expression to country music during the final years of aforementioned bands’ existence. Steinfort, whose voice has both gravel and charisma in it, proves on this album that he can not only belt out angry working class punk rock but also melanholic, defiant country.

Sadly, even if Steinforts’ vocals are quite adept, the rest of the album isn’t particularly impressive. It’s not that there’s anything wrong with it as such; the big issue here is that it feels too much like a cookie-cutter neo-outlaw country album with all the clichés and tropes you’d expect from one, but not much more than that. Songs about being on death row, about drinking, about being low-down, about defiance in the face of adversity, vocals that sound like they’re going for a hint of that whiskey rasp… well, you know, the whole ten yards of generic outlaw country, with more than a hint of what Johnny Cash did on his American albums thrown in for good measure. The “hit” song of the album is This One’s For Us, which comes across as something of a street punk-meets-Johnny Cash song.

Ultimately, When The Rain Falls comes across as an extracurricular exercise, a sort of “I can do this too” -type of album. Nothing wrong with that, of course, but I feel an album of that kind is more about satisfying the artist than providing much of durable listening value, and easily leaves the audience a bit cold. Which is exactly what When The Rain Falls does. With a bit more ambition, this could have been a more satisfying album. As it is, When The Rain Falls is an interesting curio for fans of Discharger (and Steinforts’ new band, Haymaker), but not much more.

Those Poor Bastards: Behold The Abyss (CD, 2012)

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THOSE POOR BASTARDS behold the abyssStepping into quite comic book like territory, Behold The Abyss is a concept album that functions as companion to the first Edgar Switchblade novel written by Those Poor Bastards main man Lonesome Wyatt. In essence, the songs on the album provide a soundtrack to the book; as an aside, the book is quite atrocious… but has spawned already two sequels in book format, as well as a few spoken word 7″ releases, all equally atrocious.

Naturally, the book tie-in and the rather absurd and silly premise of the book (a goat-legged cannibal killer with a cannibal horse out hunting a werewolf) cannot help but affect the album… in a negative way. This is too bad, because the album isn’t actually bad as such, and most of the lyrics would work on their own without the book. But it is what it is.

Musically, Behold The Abyss treads the same territory as before, but perhaps with a slightly dirtier, more lo-fi sound than the previous album. Other than that, friends and fans of previous albums will feel right at home.

The album is of a pretty consistent quality, which is about two or three pegs below what Those Poor Bastards have achieved at their best, but far from hopeless. There are a couple of highlights, A Robe Of Scarlet Thread and Sacrificial Lamb, which are definite standout tracks and pretty much make the album worthwhile on their own. The eerie lullaby God’s Dark Heaven is a third track worth mentioning.

By this time, TPB had set in for a pattern that is more or less repeated on all albums to this day: nice enough albums, but a far cry from the early works, each redeemed by at least one definite highlight track which harks back to the quality of their early works.

Those Poor Bastards: Gospel Haunted (CD, 2010)

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THOSE POOR BASTARDS gospel hauntedAfter the brilliant Satan Is Watching, I placed considerable expectations on its successor album Gospel Haunted, despite the interim work Abominations being a throwaway release that represented a huge dip in quality. The opener of the album, Glory Amen, indicates that the album will match the expectations, but sadly much of the rest of the album is of a considerably more humble level.

Of course, when a band releases two classics in one year, it raises the bar extremely high and there’s a good chance that even a more than decent album will fail to live up. I mean, not every band can be Black Sabbath circa 1970-1975 and release classic after classic. This is the case with Gospel Haunted: in and of itself it’s not a bad album. It’s a bit uneven and contains some tracks that feel a bit like padding, but it contains enough highs and few enough lows to even qualify as a good album. But that’s the thing: Gospel Haunted is good, but The Plague and Satan Is Watching were outstanding, classics.

As the name of the album implies, on Gospel Haunted Lonesome Wyatt and The Minister dive head first into biblical, rapturous and religious imagery; of course, drenched deep in the sarcastic, subversive, darkly humorous and irreverently twisted approach they’d made their own by this point. Even the lyrics on the digipak panel are laid out like bible verses. There’s no major shift in focus in comparison to Satan Is Watching, though.

The same applies to the music, too: it’s not a carbon copy of Satan Is Watching, but you can’t mistake the band for anything but Those Poor Bastards. It’s the same brand of gothic old timey country folk drenched in lo-fi aesthetics, garage buzz, horror elements and an all ’round ghostly, eerie atmosphere, with Lonesome Wyatt’s charismatic proclamation being deservedly the centerpiece of the music.

There are two genuine Those Poor Bastards classics on the album: the aforementioned album opener Glory Amen and the devout Wealth Is Death. Apart from these, however, even the good songs on the album fail to impress in the same way as countless songs on previous albums did. The final track on the album, Ill At Ease, is a real outlier in TPB’s discography, clocking in at an unprecedented twelve and a half minutes. It has the elements for a TPB classic, but sadly pads these with forgettable filler stuff. Had it been trimmed down to maybe half its length, forsaking boring sections, it could have been one of the better tracks in Those Poor Bastards’ impressive list of great songs. As it is now, it’s a bit of a botched opportunity.

In retrospect, looking at the entirety of Those Poor Bastards discography, Gospel Haunted marks the start of a marked if not pronouncedly drastic decline in quality – and one that is still ongoing. If the first decade of the 2000’s saw TPB release only classic full-length albums (plus a few shorter works of lesser quality), starting from this, their first album in the current decade, they’ve been unable to reach that same quality. It says more about the stellar quality of TPB’s first four albums than any bad quality of Gospel Haunted that after Satan Is Watching it feels like a disappointment.

 

Those Poor Bastards: Abominations (CD, 2009)

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THOSE POOR BASTARDS abominationsThose Poor Bastards’ fourth full-length album was their first Halloween release, but the following year truly started Lonesome Wyatt’s tradition of Halloween releases. It saw the release of two minor TPB releases: this, as well as a 7″ only release called Black Dog Yodel, which will be reviewed later on.

Incidentally, the vinyl version of this is the only TPB release I do not have, so if you want to part with your copy for a reasonable price… get in touch!

This release is pretty much a redundant throwaway release. There’s little country or folk on it, instead focusing on eerie, almost carnivalesque horror music. There also aren’t any songs that are particularly good or memorable on it. Opener Nightmare World probably comes closest to being worthwhile, but even it is a second-rate TPB song at best.

Over the years since, a sort of pattern has formed for Lonesome Wyatt with Those Poor Bastards and his solo releases: a full-length roughly every year, interspersed with an EP or a mini album here and there. Usually he saves his best shots for the album, which is well and good, whereas the EP’s and mini albums contain more experimental and/or somewhat second rate material. Abominations is a prime example: lesser worthy material that, depending on your cynicism, one could still be assured the fans will cough up cash for and/or is of genuine interest to the fans.

I’m a cynic but hey, I still bought it.

 

Those Poor Bastards: Satan Is Watching (CD, 2008)

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THOSE POOR BASTARDS satan is watchingReleased on Halloween 2008, gothic country act Those Poor Bastards’ second album of the year was in many ways more accessible and more in line with the sound they’d established on previous albums than The Plague, released earlier the same year. Even so, Satan Is Watching also sees the approach of the dynamic duo evolve from previous albums.

Expanding on the religious thematics that started to crop up heavily on Hellfire Hymns, Satan Is Watching is a veritable deluge of subersive evangelical, fundamentalist christian proclamation, cynical sarcasm, twisted moral decadence and irreverence bordering on, if not entirely crossing over to the blasphemous. In my opinion, songs such as This World Is Evil, Crooked Man and Swallowed By Sin feature some of the best Those Poor Bastards lyrics. The last of the aforementioned is a duet with Hank III, an early supporter of TPB. Dark humour had always been a part of TPB’s lyrics, but the amount and venomous cynicism of the sarcasm and black humour were certainly taken to new levels on Satan Is Watching.

The song material is in many ways something of a mixed bag. Some of the material, such as the three tracks mentioned before, fit well in with TPB’s already established style, but outliers such as the twisted rockabilly of Doggone and the driving garage punk rock of a reworked The Bright Side (featured as a hidden track on the EP) bring something unexpected to the mix; And whilst the majority of the album is extremely strong, like on Hellfire Hymns some of the tracks come across as a bit too unpolished and underworked. A definite surprise on the album is a rather deranged and malicious cover of the Johnny Cash classic I Walk The Line; but Lonesome Wyatt and The Minister manage to pull it off.

Still, despite some weaker moments, Satan Is Watching is an amazingly good album – the second bullseye in a year for Those Poor Bastards. With two stunning albums, two highlights of their career, 2008 certainly was a good year for Those Poor Bastards. Too bad tthe band would enter a slight decline in the wake of these two albums.

Those Poor Bastards: The Plague (CD, 2008)

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THOSE POOR BASTARDS the plague2008 was a happening year for gothic country duo Those Poor Bastards: they released not only one, but two albums, both of which are absolute highlights in their career. It was also around this time that the cult following of the band was truly taking root. And, sadly, also the time around which the creative star of the band slowly started to wane.

However, on the first of the two albums from 2008, The Plague, there are no signs of waning creativity. None whatsoever: the album is a veritable monument of darkness, defying pigeonholing and borrowing freely from many genres.

The two opening tracks set the mood and approach of the album. Sick & Alone is a dreary and dark lament of eternal solitude, a track that fits in nicely with Those Poor Bastards’ previous discography. It is followed by Black Lightning, which takes a deep plunge into an abyss of doom, blackness, evil and utter, utter hopelessness. There’s more than a passing nod towards doomy metal that reeks of funeral, and wailing saw played by Slackeye Slim lends the haunting track a definite ghostly aura. Both tracks are nothing short of superb.

From there, Lonesome Wyatt and The Minister proceed to explore visions of haunted apocalypse, rural armageddon and redneck disaster, combining familiar elements with new, strange ones. Urged on by plummeting percussion, eerie organs, pounding pianos, haunting guitars and the at times subdued, at times malicious and at times fiercely proclaiming vocals of Lonesome Wyatt, The Plague is a 35-minute slab of doom and gloom. Calling it a country or folk record – even with a prefix such as “gothic” or “dark” – is to stretch things to the point of breaking; this is the kind of music that defies genres.

Whilst not all tracks on The Plague are of the same high calibre as the two opening tracks, there really aren’t any weak moments on the album. Some other highlights include the haunting Nightmare Lullaby, the hopeless and wretched I Cannot Escape The Darkness, the pounding nightmare title track, and perhaps the most demented love song ever, You Belong To Me.

In a genre that has always remained, and will always remain, in the fringes of the underground itself, Those Poor Bastards have with The Plague carved an album that is both one of the absolute essentials but also an outlier, an oddity that transcends the genre whose 2010’s incarnation it helped to establish – “gothic country” or “doom folk” or whatever you want to call it.

If you like music that’s scary, gothic, filled with eerie doom and suffocating horror, look no further. This is it.

Those Poor Bastards: Hellfire Hymns (CD, 2007)

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THOSE POOR BASTARDS hellfire hymnsUS gothic country duo Those Poor Bastards commenced their golden era with their debut full-length Songs Of Desperation, and continue in exceptionally fine form on this, their second full-length album. Whilst the concept of a darkly twisted, puritanically oppressed aesthetic combined with lo-fi old time country folk was already established on the duo’s debut EP and first full-length, it is on Hellfire Hymns that the imagery of Those Poor Bastards as it largely remains to this day, was presented upon the world.

A prominent new element on Hellfire Hymns is the darkly twisted, humorous and irreverent religiosity, which teeters on the blasphemously sarcastic but still retains an aura of authenticity, of lived life. There was some of it on Songs Of Desperation already, but not to this extent.

As far as I know, the group hail from Wisconsin, which is quite far from the bible belt, but what do I know of the religious atmosphere of rural Wisconsin? Probably full of puritan tradition and perversion. Whatever the case, Those Poor Bastards riff on religion with imagery full of baptist ecstasy, old testament hellfire, dark sarcasm and subversive verse. It’s quite glorious. To me the lyrics come across as the musings of someone freeing themselves from the shackles of oppressive barnhouse christianity more than postmodern antireligiosity; there is a feeling of desolate separation from God here, of being lost in a darkness without the old comfort of belief. Maybe this is the place from where the lyrics originate, or maybe songwriter Lonesome Wyatt bluffs well.

Musically, the blueprint remains largely the same from the previous album: old time country folk music with a definite gothic twist and fuzz-laden distortion; a sort of garage-y death rock take on gospel country as performed by The Carter Family, The Louvin Brothers and dozens of string bands from the Appalachian region. Again, the arrangements are far from intricate or complex, but there are small details which elevate the music, ranging from growled and shrieked backing vocals to the occasional organ, all lending a slightly out-of-tune, out-of-step disjointed feel to the music which works well.

At 44 minutes long, the album perhaps slightly overstays its welcome, containing a few tracks that don’t work quite so well. It’s not that they’re filler material per se, they feel more like decent ideas that are a bit underworked and would have done well with a little more time spent on them. However, these fall into the shadow of majestic tracks such as haunting opener The Dust Storm, the fervously stompin’ Behold Black Sheep and many others.

Hellfire Hymns is a desolate journey from dust storms to incestuous religion, rural isolation, degeneration and loss of God. The album ends on an appropriately hopeless, horrible note with Everything Is Gone, proclaiming an end of all that comes not with a bang but a fizzle.

Despite a few tracks that sound a bit half-worked, this is an album of stunning strength and impressive vision, a true iconic release in the history of dark folk and gothic country.

 

Those Poor Bastards: Songs Of Desperation (CD, 2005)

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THOSE POOR BASTARDS songs of desperation“The only drug I’ve found to ease the hurt are songs of desperation…”

I’d been into country for a couple of years when a friend from the States sent me this album on mp3. It didn’t take me more than a listen or two to know that this was one of the best albums I’d ever heard, and that this was the kind of darkness I’d been looking for in music all my life. Later on, the gothic country duo of Lonesome Wyatt and The Minister would add more overtly albeit darkly humorous, tongue-in-cheek stylings to their music, but on their debut the humour, whilst present, is of a wholly darker and more subdued nature. There’s a definite demented, depressed, alienated and estranged vibe on Songs Of Desperation that would vanish from TPB’s music over time.

Expanding and evolving on the debut EP, the music on the album is a combination of lo-fi fuzzy garage and old time acoustic country laced with a sickly, gothic aesthetic. Songs Of Desperation is a combination of the hurtin’ songs of Hank Williams, the rural horror of Lovecraft’s The Picture In The House, old black-and-white silent horror movies, puritan repression and the mysterious evil of Appalachian murder ballads, all washed through a filter of distorted, buzzing lo-fi production values. It’s glorious. It’s hard to put into words what the album feels like. The terror, the estrangement, the overwhelming fear of everything is authentic in a way words cannot do justice to. It’s American Psycho in a rural setting, a degenerate Patrick Bateman in a dilapidated farmhouse with rotting teeth and hair falling out.

The lyrics are rarely exaggeratedly melodramatic, rather going for a more personal, low-key approach; there’s precious little of the religious thematics here that Lonesome Wyatt would embrace on later albums. It makes Songs Of Desperation feel more personal, more from the heart. Later on, the sarcasm would become rather dominant in many lyrics, but despite the obvious theatralics, I’m still convinced that there is a lot of sincere, heartfelt darkness poured into the lyrics on this album.

Whilst the arrangements are far from intricate, they are extremely tasteful and appropriate. Fuzzy electronic guitars and muted acoustic strumming are complemented by slightly out-of-tune steel guitar and piano in a soundscape that is just a bit wobbly, like a slightly damaged and warped old tape. Lonesome Wyatt’s deep voice is, as it has always been, extremely commanding, but it too is far more subdued and restrained than on later albums, gloomy rather than malicious.

I’m still torn in regards to my favourite Those Poor Bastards album. There are days when Songs Of Desperation holds that place. But regardless of which I consider their best at any given time, there is no doubt that Songs Of Desperation is, for me, their most significant album because it is the one that got me hooked to them and their particular brand of rural darkness. To ease the hurt.

Those Poor Bastards: Country Bullshit (CD, 2004)

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THOSE POOR BASTARDS country bullshitGothic country messiahs Those Poor Bastards are one of the few artists whose releases I well and truly collect – I have almost everything they’ve released in all available formats. All I’m missing is one 7″. So I am not even going to pretend objectivity here: I fucking love Those Poor Bastards.

On this, their first EP, the US duo come across as still somewhat embryonic. The basic fundaments of their music, a cross between old time country folk and fuzz-laden out-of-tune garage sensibilities with lyrical themes of twisted old time religion, wretchedness, depression and everything dark are in place, but the duo of Lonesome Wyatt and The Minister would greatly improve their songwriting and arrangements in rather quick succession.

Consisting of an intro and five songs, this rather brief release features a song Hank Williams III made something of an underground hit when he covered it, Those Pills I Took, which for the longest time was TPB’s greatest claim to fame – despite being far from their best song. It’s not even the best song on this EP. As a composition and piece of lyric it’s very fine, yes indeed, but the soft fuzz of the guitar and rather rigid performance don’t do it justice. Hank 3’s ragged honky tonk rendition is far superior. The best song on this EP is without a doubt Black Dog Yodel, which is a classic Those Poor Bastards song in all regards: a sparse, acoustic arrangement with out-of-tune background vocals over which a story of personal wretchedness and southern discomfort is sung. The rest of the songs are rather forgettable rows – even the acerbic attack on mainstream country called Radio Country. The bonus track, The Bright Side, would get a far superior new treatment on the Satan Is Watching -album some years later.

Whilst the seeds of a darkly humorous, fundamentally wretched greatness are contained within this EP, without the benefit of hindsight they’re not easy to spot. The great concept of Those Poor Bastards still required a little bit of gestation to truly spring into bloom – which it did on their debut album shortly afterwards.