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Something evil this way comes. SOMETHING REALLY EVIL! Macabre, twisted and most definitely rockin’, The Agnostic-Phibes Rhythm & Blood Conspiracy are the spawn of an unlikely collaboration between three members of those Appalachian-styled bluegrass punksters, The Agnostic Mountain Gospel Choir and Jackson Phibes – the reclusive, horror-obsessed frontman of underground garage/swamp-blues act, Forbidden Dimension.
It would be inaccurate to call Campfire Tales an easy listen. We’re talking low-down, dirty murder ballads splattered with gore, bluegrass, blood, rockabilly and a raw, pile-driving delta blues sound. What is impressive about this collection of creepy musical tales is that the collaboration really works well. Like the soundtrack to some Tarantino-esque zombie splatter-fest it relentlessly shuffles along with the living dead, impervious to the constrictions of musical genre. Think Johnny Cash and Link Wray meet The Cramps and you’re heading along the right dark, secluded, forest-lined highway. The savage stories contained here are of serial killers and vicious murders but are delivered with a sneer and a country-rock drawl. Like a white-knuckle, schlock-horror movie you will find yourself screwing your eyes up in fright and praying that the killer is not standing behind you – don’t answer that phone and for god’s sake don’t go into the woods!
The album opens with A Match to the Kindling, a short, dark country instrumental on overdriven electric guitar and echoing mandolin evoking images of some ruthless, lonesome, high plains drifter riding into the night. This gives way to Campfire Tales in which Phibes begins the narrative “Harken to me children, let’s hear some campfire tales…” He goes on to describe all manner of nasty mutilations and “murders dripping with gore – but nothing you ain’t heard a dozen times before”. You just haven’t heard it quite like this before. With double bass plodding and laid-back surf guitar licks this really is a Frankenstein’s monster of a song. It could be straight out of a 50’s B-movie and does not suffer for that fact.
Then there is Wolfman Franz. A fusion of southern blues and Eastern European-styled guitar riffs which set the scene for this song based on a story told by Judd Palmer of The Agnostics about a guy he met in Eastern Europe who was faking insanity to get disability benefits. Every night he goes up to the roof and howls at the moon. The comedy is found as they question how much Franz was faking and how much of the insanity was real. The quality of the song writing and story-telling really shows in this track as the music neatly mirrors the storyline.
Another real stand-out track on this compendium of the grotesque is Windigo Song , based on an old tale of a wood-spirit that made victims go crazy from isolation. Again, the instrumentation depicts the story in a frenzied Appalachian country-punk style reminiscent of the more rocky Agnostic Mountain Gospel Choir material. There is a rockabilly strut to this song as well which invites the listener to join in this danse macabre. This is probably where the Agnostic-Phibes project is at its most accessible and enjoyable.
Throughout Campfire Tales there are elements which sound like something from an early Alice Cooper LP, none more so than the horrific Neckin’ Party which is based around a fairly unpleasant story of violence and rape over a dirty, rockin’ blues riff. This is not a tale for the faint-hearted by any means. Phibes tells how this song “wrote itself, kinda dragging me down some dark roads”. He then admits that “It’s always weird playing this one for pleasant folk-type audiences, but it’s just a story I made up.” It may not be one for “pleasant folk-type audiences” but if you like your tunes gritty and sleazy then you will devour this with vigour.
Interestingly enough, the Agnostic’s Bob Keelaghan and Jackson Phibes share a fascination with Norwegian Black Metal and it is from that interest that they were inspired to write the song Who Fears The Devil? It is based on the true story of the bitterly cold Norwegian night when Varg Vikernes of Black Metal Band Burzum fatally stabbed Mayhem front man, Euronymous outside his Oslo apartment. A gory tale indeed, Phibes continues “it was a modern murder ballad that was already written. I just had to put it into verse over my bastardized desert blues”. The song is driven by a growling slide electric guitar sound more evocative of the Deep South than Scandinavia. Phibes drawls his way through the tortured mind of the frenzied killer to great effect in this plodding rocker.
The album closes with an eerie slide blues lament called Blind Ghost Moan. Both electric and acoustic slide is used to create an almost hypnotic effect. This was intended to be reminiscent of Blind Willie Johnson’s Dark was the Night, Cold was the Ground but, as Phibes puts it “louder and more creepy”. There are no words, just a mournful wail and sparse, deathly percussion. This is a fitting conclusion to what is a very strange album.
The Agnostic Phibes Rhythm & Blood Conspiracy have produced a stunning album in Campfire Tales. It is an album which evokes feelings of B-movie slasher pics being shown in a run-down movie theatre in a forgotten backwater town in some god-forsaken American state – the sort of place that psychotic trappers hang out and strangers aren’t welcom. Its theme is gory and blood-soaked and its aura is simply chilling. Musically, it is an enthralling blend of raw blues, rockabilly, country and Southern rock. The guitars are dirty and overdriven and the vocals are snarled. In conclusion, this really is one hell of a concept album…should I say concept project. It will be very interesting to see this hybrid in the live setting especially if they get their hands on a certain Mr Cooper’s gallows and guillotines.
Review by: Craig Walker
Video: Neckin’ Party
Photo Credit: Arif