The Holy Court of Baltimore is the fourth self-released album by Chris Kiehne and, as you might expect from a lecturer in English, displays his fascination with words to good effect, drawing extensively on the character of Ophelia from William Shakespeare’s play Hamlet.
Opening track The Revenant sets the mood, its lyrics invoking the ghost of Hamlet against a sparse musical backdrop of strummed acoustic guitar and piano with some sweet harmonies by Sonya Cotton before a band (bass, drums and heavily distorted guitar) arrive to turn it into a slab of raucous power-pop. The Western Throne introduces Ophelia in a flurry of literary references over an uptempo rock music backing.
I will admit to being slightly puzzled by the album’s title track; as far as I’m aware Shakespeare made no reference to Baltimore in Hamlet but perhaps this is simply Chris exercising artistic license in a lyric which again addresses Ophelia. Musically, it opens with a simple strummed acoustic guitar over which Chris and Sonya harmonise before an analogue-sounding synth adds its wheezy, harmonia-esque charm.
The same synth sound briefly opens The Basilisk before the full band join in behind Chris’ dark, neo-Gothic lyric. The Holy Court of Baltimore, Part II again draws heavily on Hamlet while the reference to Baltimore becomes clearer with its mention of that city’s Loch Raven reservoir. Musically the song keeps to the uptempo rock style, opening with Chris accompanying himself over a strummed acoustic guitar before being joined by piano, harmony vocals and finally the full band.
The Mouse Trap is a short song, driven by Chris’ strummed acoustic guitar and piano chords it sets aside rock music in favour of a style closer to contemporary Americana to create an interesting juxtaposition with its lyrical theme (Ophelia, again). The dense lyrics of The Western Throne, Part II are hard for this woefully undereducated reviewer to unravel; I did initially think it might be a further extemporisation around Ophelia, although the references to ‘Father-Phantom Morrison and Darkbloom’ seem to suggest not. Opening with Chris’ raspy vocal over a distorted synth and bass accompaniment, his trademark strummed acoustic guitar supporting some wordless vocals before the rest of the band appear to lead the song to its rocky end, interspersed with occasional musical dropouts to allow Chris’ voice to the fore.
Lyrically The Evening Redness in the West seems to be a farewell of sorts to Ophelia. Musically it benefits from returning to a more Americana-tinged style and giving the band the evening off; its coda, awash with harmonies over a simple keyboard part, is a definite highlight and perhaps a pointer to a different musical style worth exploring further.
The album closes with ‘The Burgundy Cord’; it seems to be inspired by Ophelia but again it references apparently non-Shakespearian characters (were there any ‘Blackwater wolves’ in Hamlet?). Musically, Chris and his acoustic guitar lead the way, with Sonya’s harmony vocals adding light and shade before the band return to take the song into a full-on rock power-ballad.
All in all, The Holy Court of Baltimore is an unusual blend of literary lyrics and rock music; in other hands it might have veered off into 1970s style prog-rock territory. Nevertheless, it will be interesting to hear what Chris Kiehne has in store for his next album.
Review by: Helen Gregory