Manchester-based Chrissy Mostyn and Rick Pilkington of The Blackheart Orchestra have repeatedly shown a fine handle on synth prog’s landscape, fuelled by their ethereal soundscapes and Mostyn’s haunting vocals. Their influences take on a wide range from artists such as Sigur Ros, Bat For Lashes and Bjork. When it comes to being compared to other musicians the inevitable comparison to Kate Bush is always made. But how Mostyn and Pilkington go about making music feels more like it’s bathed in everything from Cocteau Twins to early Pink Floyd.
For some musicians, a new album is often an all encompassing emotional and expressive experience where they often tackle the most daunting themes and subjects. Three years after their acclaimed sophomore album Mesmeranto received unanimous praise from the likes of Louder Than War and Prog Magazine, The Blackheart Orchestra is set to release their new album Hotel Utopia. Known for their various moods and imagery, Mostyn and Pilkington’s focus this time around is fixated on the afterlife.
As we get older we are all increasingly haunted by thoughts of mortality. With that in mind, Hotel Utopia raises questions (but doesn’t necessarily attempt to answer them) around what actually happens to us when our life here on earth ends. It’s a daunting question that first had its roots on Mesmeranto, inspired by Mostyn’s mother who was nearing her own death. Interestingly, Pilkington only a few days ago told me, “We both (Chrissy and I) have a very strong curiosity and fascination with the spiritual side of life and the possibility of a side of our existence which we may not yet fully understand”.
In recent weeks as a music enthusiast I have allowed Hotel Utopia to wash over me with its existential questions. The 13 tracks on offer present ample evidence of the challenges the duo have laid out for themselves both sonically and as songwriters stopping off en route at murder, suicide, the end of the world and reincarnation. If you have listened to their lead single Under The Headlights, you’ll have already heard intertwined with Mostyn’s lyrics, the voice of 1960’s British philosopher Alan Watts, whose spoken word from one of his famous lectures “Myth of Myself” offers us words of wisdom, as if he is speaking to us from the afterlife. Moreover Watts dissemination of the things we know about God and the cosmos and who we are for instance plays directly into the sorts of things Mostyn and Pilkington are interested in exploring.
There is truly no song on Hotel Utopia to dislike, for each is an entirely unique listening experience. Our introduction to the album comes through The Tides as its swirl of sounds drift over you giving us a sense of what’s beyond the veil. More to the point this is a song Mostyn wrote about her mother’s passing. The way in which Mostyn uses her voice often feels like she’s bringing forth strong images, memories or feelings to mind of her mother and her own process with grief. The song Safe, too, delivers very much its own emotional piece, where Mostyn pleads with us to “Let me know when I’m safe”.
Most interesting are a group of songs that come roughly halfway through the album beginning with Alive and includes A Dangerous Thing, Dust and Translucent. All act as a cathartic addressing of life, love, bereavement and the mystery of death. On A Dangerous Thing for instance Mostyn confesses “My love is a dangerous thing / It can ruin everything.” But among all this intense wrangling Translucent almost steals the show with its air of violence. Lyrical and instrumentally the song explodes in fits and starts, which see its protagonist kill his lover in a fit of rage before taking his own life to join her. Here Pilkinton’s guitar is another reason why I’m drawn to Translucent. There is no doubt Pilkinton is a gifted player. He has a knack of choosing the right guitar sound to suit each song. More recently when I asked him about the array of instrumentation on the album, this what he said about his guitar playing:
“One of the main differences on this album is that we have begun to feature electric guitar more than ever before and I have enjoyed going back to my original self as a guitar player. Before The Blackheart Orchestra I was solely a guitar player in rock bands for many years, but when me and Chrissy started the band firstly I changed to acoustic as it suited what we were writing and then changed again as our material started to be written more on keyboards than guitar. So it’s been a bit of going back to my roots to use more guitar than any previous album on Hotel Utopia and to be playing more in a heavier rock style on songs like Translucent, The Flood and Astronaut.”
Besides the addition of Pilkington’s magnificent heavy riffs, its fair to say you rarely know what’s coming next in The Blackheart Orchestra armoury. I’ve previously noted how Mostyn and Pilkington are renowned for letting go of the reins and allowing themselves to experiment with sonics, arrangements, even lyrics. The blend of different musical elements on Hotel Utopia is not only defined by both acoustic and electric guitars but also by the Mandela and bass and the duo’s collection of ancient synthesisers.
“Our sound is defined by one or two particular instruments, firstly Chrissy’s Suzuki Omnichord which is like a primitive electronic version of an autoharp from 1981, my Korg X5 synth from 1991 which is our piano sound, the flugelhorn on Tide and provides the drum sounds on many tracks, all played live on various keys, and our small Yamaha Portasound from 1982 which provides our organ sound from what is essentially a toy keyboard! “ notes Pilkington. “All these instruments are things that most musicians discarded three decades ago, but we love them for their unique sounds! Being so old they are quite temperamental and fragile so when touring we have to have spares of everything!”
While The Blackheart Orchestra’s last album Mesmeranto raised their profile exponentially, Hotel Utopia is set to become one of the year’s most soul-baring albums. The centrepiece is arguably The Warning which looks at the death of the Earth. Here Mostyn’s lyrics act as a wake-up call to all of humanity. Then again, the album’s piano-led closing track The Flood is just too good to keep a secret. It runs at 9 minutes and 3 seconds, making it The Blackheart Orchestra’s longest-running track to date. Here Mostyn vocals are airy with lyrics foreboding an apocalyptic end to life. But just when all seems lost a spiritual rebirth shines a light on the unknown with a classic guitar solo amplified by Pilkington. It’s moments like these on Hotel Utopia that truly capture the existential brilliance of a band continually changing gears.
Based on “Under the Headlights” and “The Tide”, The Blackheart Orchestra sound intriguing. I’m entirely new to them and look forward to checking out their new album!
A wonderful review Robert. Their music is uniquely captivating.