Monday, April 24, 2017

The Crimea: Secrets of the Witching Hour at 10

The Crimea's Secrets of the Witching Hour came out on the 30th of April, 2007 - ten years ago this coming Sunday. It made headlines at the time not for its musical content (more on which shortly) but for the fact that it was released as a free download on the band's website.

That seems unremarkable now, so here's some context. In April 2007 - more than a year before Bandcamp was launched, more than a year before Spotify was launched, several months even before the release of Radiohead's pay-what-you-want seventh album In Rainbows - The Crimea, whose previous LP came out on Warner Bros. Records and included a UK top 40 single in Lottery Winners on Acid, decided to give their new album away for free over the Internet.

And it's not like Secrets of the Witching Hour was just bashed out on autopilot. It's clear that a lot of thought and feeling went into the creation of this album, and giving it away gratis was a very generous move on the part of its creators. These eleven tracks are dressed up in a lot of pop culture references and apocalyptic imagery, but strip it all back and what you're left with is a nakedly emotional and darkly honest break-up album. ("She did you no good; she brought you only harm," Davey MacManus tells himself repeatedly at the beginning of Requiem Aeternam.) It's one thing to spin your heartbreak into songs, but to then set those songs free - to allow people to store your deepest, darkest feelings in their iTunes libraries without asking for a penny in return - is something else entirely, especially given that the decision to charge nothing for SotWH pretty much ensured that all press coverage of the album would focus primarily on its price (or lack thereof) rather than on the songs themselves.

So let's talk about those songs now, because I love this album and it's high time it got its dues. The first track is All Conquering, which opens with a darkly turbulent intro that is perfectly evocative of the storm that will shortly roll in.

I always wanted to make a music video for All Conquering. It would open with a couple arguing in a bedroom, gesticulating angrily as that ominous, foreboding intro sets the tone. Then one of the people storms out, slamming the door behind them, leaving the other person to collapse devastated onto the bed just as the drums limber up and - bam - that mighty guitar riff enters like a knife through a mountain. "Our love is blown to smithereens," sings MacManus; "the future bleeds..."

Secrets of the Witching Hour starts at ground zero, beginning at the exact moment when the relationship explodes and affording the listener a front-row seat for the ensuing earthquake. MacManus cleverly projects his own pain - his own sense that everything is over, that his future has been mortally wounded - onto the face of the Earth itself, so that the end of his relationship becomes The End of the World. Raining Planets tries nonchalantly to shrug it off ("it's only the end of the world"). Man grasps desperately for a connection that's strong enough to endure Armageddon. The bruised, brooding Loop a Loop begins as a 'waiting for you to change your mind and come back to me' kinda song ("damn girl gon' loop, loop a loop a loop") and ends up trying in vain to bring the whole world back to life ("damn world gon' loop, loop a loop a loop").

Mind you, for an album that contains such hilariously nihilistic lines as "throw another small child on the fire" and "it's a beautiful day to die", Secrets of the Witching Hour is surprisingly hopeful and heartwarming when it wants to be. The invigorating Light Brigade pulses with the heroic abandon of a doomed cavalry's defiant last stand, but the two tracks that follow - Several Thousand Years of Talking Nonsense and Requiem Aeternam - are where we hear The Crimea at their most human, their most open to the possibility of happiness, and thus their most affecting. As a whole, this album is like a big, flaming asteroid that looms fearsomely in the sky and darkens the Earth with its promise of extinction, but here - as the end of both the record and the world draws nigh - a few beams of light are permitted to burst through that darkness.

Several Thousand Years (my favourite song on the album - I especially enjoy headbanging along to its joyously noisy second half) is a list song. MacManus names all sorts of things that he's thankful for - including Fairytale of New York by The Pogues and Ben & Jerry's ice cream - before coming to the conclusion that, "when all is said and done, we are not worthy of this world we do our damnedest to destroy." He marvels at people who "believe it's their God-given right to survive", but he also leaves the slightest bit of room for a glimmer of hope: "it's not over, there is still time to repent..."

And then, on penultimate track Requiem Aeternam, that glimmer grows into a warm, dazzling glow. This track has a more stripped-down feel than anything else on SotWH, and while it starts out sounding spooky and haunted, it eventually swells into a life-affirming testament to love and the pursuit of happiness.

"Happiness is possible...just keep rolling the snowball up the hill...your ship will come in...just keep on stumbling..."

Requiem Aeternam would have made a lovely ending for Secrets of the Witching Hour, suggesting as it does that our narrator has finally laid his pain to rest and made peace with whatever heartbreak it was that triggered all this drama. But The Crimea wisely realised that failing to end an end-of-the-world album with the actual end of the world would be kind of a cop-out, and so we also get Wierd [sic], a perfect snapshot of everything going up in flames as reality finally tears itself apart. "Pterodactyls take on the helicopter gunships," reports MacManus from the thick of the action; "brace yourself, this is the apocalypse."

And so, instead of closing with a solemn string chord and a whisper of "God rest her soul"Secrets of the Witching Hour ends with someone hammering the cacophonous crap out of a piano as a choir of voices curse "the bastard that made us all" in droning unison. It's absurd, it's excessive, and it's over the top - but then, the end of the world is no time for understatement.

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