Cerberus Shoal The Land We All Believe In

[North East Indie; 2005]

Rating: 4/5

Styles: free-from instrument manipulation, drone-experimentation, avant-rock
Others: Sun City Girls, Sunburned Hand of the Man, No-Neck Blues Band, Faun Fables

After being ridiculously addicted to the cast recording of Jesus Christ Superstar as a kid, my parents thought it would be a good idea if we all went to see it when it came to town. To my surprise, I found it sad to see people caked in make-up and dancing around. Everything was over-exaggerated, and it felt like people were trying way too hard to impress me. I thought it must be humiliating for these performers to have to act in such a way, and as a result, I felt embarrassed for them. It was like watching a mime with just a couple more tools. I began to wonder why boisterous, overdramatic performances filled with abrasive, nearly out of tune vocals, are perfectly acceptable in musical theatre. Regardless of whether I like musical theatre or if seeing that performance of Jesus Christ Superstar permanently scarred my opinion of the art form (it didn't), the stage has definitely informed what Cerberus Shoal is putting on the table. Bringing the theatre to rock music is a specific stylistic approach that usually has a polarizing effect on people. Simply put, there are some bands that sound like they were the theatre kids in high school: The Fiery Furnaces, Tarantula AD, etc. It's as though they're making musicals or rock operas, but without the theatre part of it. Maybe the genre is more akin to radio plays than anything else.

Produced by Scott Colburn of Sun City Girls fame, Cerberus Shoal's 11th album features them at their most theatrical and lyrical. Between their band constantly having a rotating line-up, no obvious leader and every member participating equally, they sound more like a Socialist art commune with vaudeville leanings than a rock band. Each song features a different combination of singers, and the effect is similar to old friends taking turns telling stories around a campfire. Through eclectic instrumentation, their songs travel the continents of the world and beyond (although they actually reside in Portland, Maine). The album opens with a stomp that recalls The Pentangle or Fairport Convention at their most unsettling, and it's a downward spiral into madness from there. Like Alice in Wonderland, when it seems nothing could be as strange as what just happened, expectations are proved wrong. Their music enters a world of surreal make-believe yet is filled with didactic lyrics that paint clear pictures of human life and the over-bearing political climate in which we live. Each song evokes visions of philosophers, decadence, war; and although they're not naming any names, we know exactly who they're talking about. As inviting as Cerberus Shoal are and as much as they capture imagination and fantasy, their music also comes with a certain heavy-handedness that can feel alienating. Making music that is smart and well-informed certainly isn't a bad thing, and I wish more artists would use their power of influence to educate, but Cerberus Shoal occasionally get lost in their own language. What could be quite powerful is often obtuse and becomes exhausting.

There's no doubt that Cerberus Shoal are doing exactly what they want, but often times role-playing can feel disingenuous. It's not their fault; actors put on a show and portray lives other than their own. It's a discipline that Cerberus Shoal are influenced by and they shouldn't be criticized for it. They're singing their guts out and have tremendous passion, but it's a cast that takes off their make-up after the album ends, and this is bound to deter some listeners. Nevertheless, The Land We All Believe In is a triumphant epic that I remain humbled by, and anyone interested in good political commentary/satire or surreal theatrics should have a lot to sink their teeth into.

1. The World We All Believe In
2. Wyrm
3. Pie For the President
4. The Ghosts are Greedy
5. Junior
6. Taking Out the Enemy