The Black Death is believed to have killed off nearly 60 percent of Europeans in the 13th century. Historians believe that in the year 1400, it reduced the population of the entire world (or at least Europe, Africa, and Asia) from 450 million people to 350 million people. A true pandemic that actually encompassed three types of plague (bubonic, pneumonic, and septicemic), the Black Death not only caused widespread, phlegmy, puss-soaked demise. It provoked mass hysteria, religious extremism, and the extermination of Jewish communities at Cologne and Mainz due to the widely - accepted belief that the sickness had been caused by Jews poisoning wells all over Christendom.
But, around every dark cloud, there is a silver lining.
The Black Death is also the great-great-great granddaddy of all things goth, metal, and generally despairing. You think those whiny milquetoasts in Bauhaus invented ruminating about Death's clammy embrace? It wasn't them, and it wasn't Black Sabbath. It wasn't Alistair Crowley or even Edgar Allan Poe. It was guys like Pieter Bruegel the Elder. And Giovanni Boccaccio. You know the phrase “write/paint/do lackluster performance art about what you know”? Well, Google The Triumph of Death and realize that in a world where corpse wagons are far more common than garbage men, death is the only subject worth knowing.
Bruegel the Elder may not have died of The Black Death his own self – historians are not sure how he met his demise. But that doesn't matter terribly. Sometimes, the mere process of confronting a cold, hard fact is sometimes as productively difficult as a more tangible sorrow. Or so one discovers after a close listen to “Acts of Man”, a sober yet fervent meditation on death's inevitability, which opens Midlake's newest effort, The Courage of Others.
Listeners will find the same lush harmonies, deft guitar work, and ornate production on this new album as on 2006's The Trials of Van Occupanther. But where Van Occupanther was clearly influenced by the folksy Americana of CSNY and, well, America, The Courage of Others takes a right turn at the Eastern Seaboard and a few steps backwards from the early 70's, reveling in a sound reminiscent of 60's British Folk-Rock. Strike that. The Courage of Others bears a tone that is downright medieval, more than anything the pasty-faced lute enthusiasts of the Love Generation had the sanguine to accomplish. Flutes are present on virtually every track of the album. Dulcimers are not exactly out of the picture either. Yet while The Courage of Others is more Fairport Convention than it is Fleetwood Mac the album is not so Sir Gawain that there are absolutely no traces of So Far. Thank The Rota Fortunae. A carbon copy of Van Occupanther would be disappointing. However, delving too deep into the vast tradition of English Folk music without some healthy perspective could have sent Midlake into the foreboding territory of Pentangle's Cruel Sister - playing fare too traditional, music only fit for the deranged geeks at Ye Olde Renaissance Faire. Leggings as required stage attire. Payment in turkey legs. Something pathetic this way comes.
So how does “Acts of Man” (and, for that matter, the rest of the album) differentiate itself from the rest of the shlock going for that traditional folk sound? First is by a restrained sense of lyricism. Absent are the melodramatic tendencies of the balladeer, whose cheesy narratives, traditional or originally composed, usually read like a cross between Harry Potter fan fiction and The Faerie Queen. Rather, Tim Smith's words bear a subtly announce the approach of Death without ever calling Him by name. Its danse macabre by way of Robert Frost – despairing yet dignified, even in light of the song's plea to be let inside when creation begins to falter and fade. Smith chooses to show with his words, rather than tell, painting a bleak picture of quietus which is impressionistic and evocative, and which ultimately sets the mood for the remainder of the album.
“Acts of Man” also sets itself apart through the subtle way in which they combine English folk vocal tendencies and instrumentation with classic rock rhythms. The track's opening guitar work, intricate and melancholy, invokes the bleak yet busy panoramas of Hieronymous Bosch and Bernt Notke. The vocals are almost sung entirely in harmonic chorus, with very little solo singing from front man Tim Smith. Although it is a far cry from the monophonic plainsong of the Gregorians, there is something vaguely monastic about the serene manner in which the members of Midlake sing. And then, those damn flutes show up. However, underneath it all, drummer Mckenzie Smith's beat evolves from mere time-keeping device to (relatively) cacophonous fills and build-ups, as if to symbolize the furious hoofclops of the Pale Rider on His Pale Horse, in whose dusty wake no body remains upright. And yet somehow, though contrasted with the harnassed vocal performance and instrumentation, the percussion on “Acts of Man” stands out without being intrusive - a rare feat for any drummer.
Midlake has managed with their newest work to capture a style that is age-old and make it sound new. The Courage of Others is a momento mori poem set to a music which remains appropriate to the lyrical tone without even approaching the realm of Middle Earth. Its kind of a treat to witness a Laurel Canyon beard-and-flannel fest like Midlake conjuring the deathly without turning their band into a baritone-and-bad synth goth kid crap-o-rama – all the while outdoing those dorky Tolkeinites in tradition. Placing an affective, striking song like “Acts of Man” as track one is definitely an inspired choice, one that whets the listener's appetite for more. Fortunately, there are another thirty-nine minutes to go.