Talkhouse Contributing Writer Zachary Lipez is the former singer for Freshkills and the current singer of Publicist UK. He writes the “Adult Problems” column for Noisey/VICE. He also contributes to Hazlitt, MySpace, and Vol.1 Brooklyn. His most recent book, with Nick Zinner and Stacey Wakefield, is Please Take Me Off the Guest List (Akashic Books, 2010). He tends bar at 124 Rabbit Club. You can follow him on Twitter here.
Eccentricity is easy enough to love if you first learn to love it in its diluted form. Scott Walker’s popularity crashed and burned after a few of his solo albums because his baroque, sweatless take on Jacques Brel was disorientating to the record-buying public. His renaissance, even among critics, only occurred after many years of Jarvis Cocker and Nick Cave making his crooning foppery sound appealing to young ears. Daniel Johnston was well served (sort of) by various New York phonies and Cobain-inspired t-shirts telling a new generation, “This is OK. Go for it.” Hell, even the post-creation myth of 5,000 Velvet Underground-worshipping bands birthed from Lou Reed’s underselling skull gives truth to the notion that you can’t expect motherfuckers to get the good shit the first time around.
So what’s a true eccentric to do? Especially if there’s no dance night devoted to the sounds you, and possibly only you, love? If your musical foibles are mocked and/or ignored by the impudent intelligentsia and mouth-breathing hordes alike? If you’re Dylan Sheets and Bluebird Gaia of Odin-serenading-madrigal-core-freak-flag-flyers Lasher Keen, you write The Middle Kingdom, an album-length soundtrack to your play, which you based on the Irish myth Tochmarc Etaine (or The Wooing of Etain). Then you put it out yourself on high-quality vinyl, and just wait for that paper to roll in while a high pan flute calls off in the distance. The little girls may ignore you, but the shepherds understand.
Lasher Keen (whom I first heard of in the Best of 2014 list at the excellent blog, Black Metal and Brews,) is a band from Nevada City, California. They have been around since 2006 and their last two albums (2012’s Berserker and last year’s Mantic Poetry, Oracular Prophesy) are two of the oddest, hate-at-first-listen-and-then-keep-coming-back-until-love-reigns-over-me collections of overwrought epic balladeering mixed with a wry sense of humor (and therefore superior to) Zeppelin Evermoring I’ve ever heard.
Lasher Keen is not music for everyone. They make their own costumes and play the hunting horn and the singing saw and the glockenspiel and every other esoteric folk instrument you’d find in your average Bag of Holding. More damning to the hope of them ever catching on with bloggers and kids alike: they don’t sing their diary. Rather than tell the listener how they feel about their dogs, dads and recently departed lovers of six months, they sing, on average, eight-minute songs about the blood of ancient faeries and spilling their seed in all available deities. Lasher Keen’s truths are as valid as the truths of your average over-sharer, but their wholesale rejection of the minutiae of the everyday (and, for that matter, the everyday itself), combined with their love of all things bard-like, results in an aggressively uncool vibe.
It can inspire harsh responses (ranging, in an informal poll, from “sounds like 16th-century Yaz” to “I’m glad this exists, but no thank-you”), but it is music that has taken on a singular place in my internal life, even after only a few months. I crave it regularly and feel weird if I go a few days without any Lasher Keen-mixed potions. The band doesn’t exist entirely without context, of course; they are open and gracious about their debt to 1960s English folk like the Incredible String Band and Pentangle, and they even cite (why the hell not make it 5,001?) the Velvet Underground as an influence. But it’s hard to think of any music from the last 35 years that this oddball mix of LARP, strings and gothic tendencies could be put next to.
The Middle Kingdom — as noted, the soundtrack to a Celtic poem-cycle play also written by the band (and starring Sheets’ daughter Fiona Artemis Gaia) — is, and let’s just get this out of the way, probably not the best place to start with Lasher Keen. That’s not to say that the album is anything less than gorgeous. It’s a luscious collection of piano ballads, soft strings and gentle percussion that occasionally builds to pagan euphoria. With previous albums, however, there was balance between long tales told in Sheets’ appealingly doom-tinged tenor, and the occasional (for lack of better word) rocker. The Middle Kingdom, saddled as it is with dramatic necessities, leans heavily on narrative, often at the expense of Nordic bangers. Consequently, the album can feel like, well, a play rather than a collection of songs. Only “Sleep Spell” (god bless that song name) and “Red Eared Oxen of Unbridled Fame” distinguish themselves as anything close to what post-Magna Carta man would call “singles.” But the telling of a long-form story, even at the expense of stand-alone moments, is just doing what Lasher Keen set out to do. They are telling a story to be consumed in one sitting. To mix myth-aphors, I’d sooner accept an axe-blow from the Green Knight than tell Lasher Keen how to saddle its Questing Beast.
One has to judge a band both from one’s own, perhaps punk-centric and silly, tiny point of view, but also from how well the artists have fulfilled their own vision. A band is not a wedding DJ; my requests are not Lasher Keen’s concern. Lasher Keen is admittedly a strange village, though, and you should learn the mores of its denizens before you start throwing gold coins around willy-nilly, but it’s an exploration I’d encourage. So I’m not saying don’t buy Lasher Keen’s new album. I’m saying buy one or all of their previous albums first, and then purchase The Middle Kingdom. Then gather your roommates, online frenemies, and casual Chaotic Good acquaintances and dance around your burning futon like the forest nymphs that you are. Then you can form a band that sounds like Lasher Keen, but accessible and slightly less interesting, and live like the kings that you could be. I doubt Lasher Keen, focused as they are on piercing the veil, will even notice.