Ecstasy and Doom
the music of Big Blood
"It's true that every time you hear a bell, an angel gets its wings. But what they don't tell you is that every time you hear a mouse trap snap, an angel gets set on fire."
- Jack Handey
Big Blood are Colleen Kinsella and Caleb Mulkerin, a married couple in Portland, Maine, and now their daughter Quinnisa. They've averaged more than two home-recorded albums a year since 2007, and some of their music sounds so much better to me than to the general public, that I'm cautious about sharing it outside this page.
They each write and sing lead on their own songs, but Colleen usually sings backup for Caleb, and her voice is the heart of their sound. I've heard it described as sounding like a 95 year old woman, a toddler, a witch, a cat, "discordant screeching", and "is there something wrong with the recording or is she doing that on purpose?" Beethoven's Great Fugue was also unlistenable to his contemporaries. The hardest thing for a singer to do is come up with an interesting original voice, and Colleen almost tries to do it again on every song.
The other heart of their sound is Caleb's style and sound engineering. In this podcast interview Colleen reveals that Caleb sees colors in sounds, and he does the recording and mixing like he's painting. You can see every brush stroke, and it would have been too intense for me if my ears hadn't already been tuned to Big Blood's piercing vocals, one-beat rhythms, fuzz-folk instrumentation, and spacy background aura.
They have so much great music, in so many styles, that I have six people's top ten lists with 51 songs. No other musical artist could pull that off. I discovered them in summer of 2014, and for the next two years I listened obsessively, craving harder stuff and not finding it anywhere except by going deeper into Big Blood. This page was my main creative project for most of 2015 and 2016.
I continue to find little things to add, but in 2017 my focus shifted to my own fiction, and now their music is more like an old friend than an object of obsession. In 2019, the two albums I got most into were by other artists: On The Corner by Miles Davis, and Country Space Junk by Wireheads. Recent change log: April 2020, added Skeleton Dream and new top ten list; January 2020, changed top image, added Deep Maine.
Most of Big Blood's music is available on this Free Music Archive page, but some of their best stuff is not, and they have a few good songs on side projects under other names. Here's their discography on Discogs, their last.fm page, their record company blog, their bandcamp page, and a Facebook fan page. Scroll down if you want to listen to my playlists, and here it is album by album:
Asian Mae - Collsing (1999 - 2004)
On Big Blood's Free Music Archive page, they describe themselves as a "phantom four piece of Asian Mae, Caleb Mulkerin, Rose Philistine and Colleen Kinsella." These identities must have something to do with their creative process, and this album is a collection of Colleen's recordings before Big Blood. At the time she and Caleb were in a band called Cerberus Shoal, and the one bit from Cerberus Shoal that I would put on the same level as Big Blood is from 3:20-4:10 of Baby Gal.
Of all the tracks on Collsing, Ballad Of The 13 Year Old is the clearest example of proto-Big Blood, with threads that will be in Colleen's songs for years: dissonant guitar picking, multitrack vocals, a structure somewhere between verse-chorus and chaos, and her voice even has a bit of a dark edge.
Window In Time is a pretty folk song, and the most interesting thing is that Colleen's vocal control is already excellent. It's like how the best painters master illustration and conventional painting before they develop their own style, and it's evidence that all the crazy stuff she does later is done with focus and intention.
Strange Maine 11.04.06
Their first three albums are named with live venues and dates, so I assumed they were live albums, but I read somewhere that they would play a live show and then record the set list at home. Anyway, the first time I tried listening to this, it sounded like inpenetrable experimentation with a few flashes of genius. Now I can't find a sound on the album that's not perfect.
The opener, All Operations, is sparkly space folk with Colleen singing two lead vocal tracks from the left and right channels, but only after a long intro. In a clear statement to listeners, the first 90 seconds of their first album is a medieval lilt jam that sounds like getting lost in a fairy forest.
All Operations also sets a precedent for lyrics that we're not supposed to understand. In the interview Colleen explains that her lyrics are so slippery because "a word pins you down," and I didn't really get this until I spent some time on Picbreeder. The secret of creativity is to use ideas as doorways to better ideas, and sometimes Big Blood will give us a deeper look at their creative process by releasing multiple versions of a song.
A Friendly Noose will later be spun from straw to gold as Fire On Fire's Hangman. But sometimes I like the straw version better for its otherworldly innocence.
A Quiet Lousy Roar is like children's music on acid -- backed only by percussion, Colleen squeaks nonsense and finally explodes in a glimmery cacophony, which might have been inspired by The Specials' Ghost Town.
Sometimes it sounds like they're trying to be weird, and other times they just happen to be weird while aiming for beauty. Full Of Smoke has their first really good vocal harmonizing -- my girlfriend says it sounds like inbred angels. When Colleen sings along with Caleb, her voice catches something bright that carries over into her best songs.
Past Time is like an extended solo by a dreamy lounge singer in an alternate 1930's, with almost no repetition, and words that slip into incoherence among soul-splitting notes. "Guide us astray of golden threads so loose that binding me are they still."
A lot of Big Blood songs are in a grey area between folk and rock, but I wouldn't call them "folk rock" because they combine the sounds differently than anyone else. Under The Concourse is a great example with a catchy chorus and a timeless vibe. It's hard to find anything this heavy and this warm.
And Slumber Me is Colleen's first organ song (I can't always tell the difference between accordion and harmonium). It's long and slow, but even the parts that seem boring turn out to be exciting soundscapes when I really listen. Compare it to the two Watery Downs from 2014.
Strange Maine 1.20.07
With all its crazy variety, their first album is still a serious portfolio of their musical range, and instead of settling down, they followed it up with a full-on experimental album, pushing the edges of their sound and bringing in more influences. With the opener, a cover of Erik Satie's First Gnossienne, they're practicing melodies that are less folky and more sophisticated. Where other recordings like this one are sad and beautiful, Big Blood's translation is eerie and gothic. At the end it bleeds into Suffer Creation, an experiment in multilayer vocals that sounds like water sprites joined by a frog.
Sovereignty You Bitch is louder and tighter than Under The Concourse, with Colleen adding electro-shock backing vocals.
Handsome Son of No One is Colleen's classiest song, like something you'd hear at an elite music school in the distant past (or future). Notice how different the choruses are from the verses while still being in the same subgenre of music. I imagine that this ethereal avant-garde chamber folk is her native style, while Caleb's native style is the backwoods garage thrash of the previous song, and their greatness as a band comes from their integration of these two forces:
Between heaven and earth,
That's chapter 5.2 of the Tao Te Ching, translated by Ellen Chen, who notes that "bellows" could also mean a musical instrument.
How like a bellows it is!
Empty and yet inexhaustible,
Moving and yet it pours out ever more.
My favorite on this album is a cover of the Sumatran pop song Indang Pariaman. At first I dismissed it as some kind of awful Hindu temple chant, but now it's one of the most luminous and trippy things I've heard.
The Fall of Quinnisa Rose has Caleb's most beautiful falsetto voice. And A Goddamn Spell is the most challenging song on the album, as Colleen's early folk sound tries on a closetful of weirdness. The scratch guitar makes it seem like a secret tunnel from Slumber Me to The Grove Is Hotter Than An Ocean's Oven.
Space Gallery Jan. 27, 2007 Sahara Club Jan. 28, 2007
Another good complete album. They do three songs each, starting with their strongest and ending with their darkest, and then a mystery. In Colleen's opener, Glory Daze, she sings like a demonic circus performer trying to break glass. Shrining Light is a fluttery folk song that's the album's biggest hit on YouTube. And A Hole In One is their first really gothic song, with dark looming vocals and harmonium like a mournful church organ.
Caleb owns this album, with three brilliant songs in different styles. Don't Trust The Ruin is an epic noise dirge like a postapocalypse journey through a haunted swamp. For a while I wondered why they named their record company after this minor song, but after more listening, the vocal harmonies are epically spooky, and this is a landmark in their musical story.
She Said Nothing is a top notch folk song, and I can hear Colleen's influence in Caleb's heady lyrics and punctuated singing style. And The Rise of Quinnisa Rose would be my religion if it weren't for Song For Baltimore. A great happy song is harder than a great dark song, and this is a high-stakes performance of a perfect composition, with two absolutely raw voices merging into something almost unbearably alive, and then Colleen's psychedelic yodeling blows off the roof. Quinnisa Rose is their daughter, who sort of created the band by keeping them at home instead of touring. She was born in 2007 and would start contributing to their albums immediately if you count crying, in 2010 as a speaker, and in 2017 as a full member.
If Big Blood's music is a dragon's treasure pile, Sequins is a weird doodad off to the side, but if their music is the ocean, this is its deepest trench. Sequins is twice-psychedelic circus music, the sound of the steampunk clockwork that turns the galaxy. It's like if Miles Davis were an elf. The rhythm sounds the way stop-motion animation looks, the vocals are not in any language that I recognize, I can't tell what the lead instrument is, and the craziest thing is, even though the same sounds keep repeating, it keeps sounding better as the song goes on. The crescendo is not in the music, but in my head.
I don't want to seem like a total druggie. I use about a gram a month of cannabis, and LSD two or three times a year. But when I'm on both at once, I put Sequins on loop and laugh and laugh. Never mind what I say below -- the line in Song For Baltimore is really "the spirit risen in Sequins."
Sew Your Wild Days Tour Vol. 1 (2007)
Until now Colleen has been working around the edges of perfect musical happiness, bumping against it with Glory Daze and Shrining Light, and climbing the wall with the help of Indang Pariman, Sequins, and The Rise of Quinnisa Rose. Now it all comes together in Adversaries & Enemies, an explosion of bliss capped by a psych jam that wheels and drones like a dreamy biplane. Here's a great live performance by Fire On Fire.
Vitamin C is a cover of the krautrock band Can, and the arrangement of sounds is absolutely perfect. The insistent airtight drums and guitar, the snake charmer organ, and the vocals, cold and bright like an ice storm, come together into something aggressive, seductive, and razor sharp. This would be my soundtrack for killing zombies.
Don't Trust The Ruin II sounds like Joanna Newsom's ghost covering "Bela Lugosi's Dead", and the title is a clue to how they think about music, because the structure is like A Quiet Lousy Roar, and it's the dissonant vibe that resembles Don't Trust The Ruin. I love how a bell rings at the peak of the song.
Song For Baltimore is the most astonishing thing I've ever experienced. Sometimes in a dream I'll hear music that's better than any real music could possibly be, but Song For Baltimore is that good -- I'm afraid if I hear it too many times I'll wake up. The verses are like electrocution by whimsy, and the choruses rise to rivers of lightning that burn brighter as the low end fills with electric guitar and a monk-like choir. This is what Christmas songs are trying to be. Song For Baltimore is the key that opens my brain to the light behind the world.
Structurally, SFB is a fractal triptych crescendo: three verses, each one more intense than the last, and each followed by a wordless chorus. Each chorus is also three parts, each part more intense than the last. And the third part begins with three notes, starting at the top and shockingly rising and rising again.
It wasn't until I slowed down the playback that I realized how far and how often Colleen's voice wanders from any known scale. She's not aiming for pretty notes and missing -- she's hitting notes whose meaning and origin are beyond logic. I've heard a similar vibe in the howls of coyotes, and one time from the raucous mass chirping of tiny birds in dead winter.
The previous song, Wrinkles & Ribbons, ends in a churchbell chime, and the lyrics of Song For Baltimore have both the content and the cadence of a prayer. They might be about the ecstasy of ego loss in intense social experiences (some things wash away, so you're one thing) or meditation (the choice, every part of this groove is quiet). But I think they're about a well-lived life (greet more friends, bearing the weight of themselves lightly) and its metaphysical context (the bright is all the more beautiful, the spirit risen in sequence). Life begins when a spark of the divine is fixed in space and time (so you're one thing, right in this vicinity) and it ends with a reopening (windows, curtains) and dissolving of the self. Notice at the end that Colleen is still singing at the top of her voice, but the sound fades in the mix and is swallowed by noise that resolves into a deep full-bodied riff like a cosmic processional. The final words: "And I'm holy."
Sew Your Wild Days Tour Vol. II (2007)
In a discography of over 200 songs, the two most magical are back to back, but they're magical in different ways, like the sun and the moon. The first time I heard Song For Baltimore it was like I'd been blind and could see. The first five times I heard Haystack it was like someone going on too long at open mike night, but I stuck with it, and now it sounds like something Tolkien heard in a dream that inspired him to invent elves -- you're walking though a forest and you come upon a campfire song by a shimmery people who are fading away because this world is too coarse for them.
The structure of Haystack, even more than Destin Rain, is based on twos. At the beginning are two lines with the same meter, each divided in two by an internal rhyme; framing the middle is a chorus performed twice, each divided into singing and breathing, with the singing further divided by doubling the same line; and at the end is a spell-like verse repeated with changes, like its own weird echo. Wrapped around this scaffolding is an unfolding of disarray as intricate as a spiderweb and as impulsive as the wind. Listening to Haystack is like watching a butterfly.
Adding to the mystery, the song's full name is "Haystack (A.P.)" My crazy interpretation is that AP is Applied Physics and the song is about surviving entropy. Freeman Dyson has said that the universe will never experience heat death, because life can always keep adapting to lower energy even when the stars have burned out: "There are so many ways in which to feel the sun." Notice the background hiss, the sterile high entropy which is overcome by the hiss of living breath.
But it's probably about weed: "A mossy green carpet to swallow driven fraughts... late night, flashing light, smell of smoke... we've got grace, time slows down." We achieve grace by suppressing the rational mind (losing headroom) and letting go of language (peeling off the labels); we experience the divine in everything (so many ways in which to feel the sun) and then you hear the smoke being exhaled.
My other favorite on this album, Got Wings?, sounds even more like a hillbilly devil cult than Big Blood usually does. I want to say it sounds like Tom Waits but in some ways it's even more concentrated, and it shows their ongoing ambition to make their sound louder but no less raw.
Why does the term "folk metal" always refer to music that starts at metal and moves toward folk, and not the other way around? I think it's because metal exists on a higher level of energy. Energy is not the same as quality, but music of a given quality can drop in energy, or add lower-energy elements, and easily keep its balance, while moving a higher energy level is much more difficult.
Three absolute triumphs, all going from folk to something extremely heavy in the space of one song, are Led Zeppelin's Babe I'm Gonna Leave You, Hawkwind's Space Is Deep, and Song For Baltimore. Notice how different they are. Even hard rock songs by artists with folk backgrounds, like Bowie's The Width of a Circle or 10,000 Maniacs' My Mother The War, have unique sounds. This is why there can never be a folk-to-metal genre, because adding noise without losing beauty means riding a wave of chaos that could end up anywhere. Everything that rises must diverge.
Reversing musical entropy is not something Big Blood got inspired and did one time. It's something they've done so consistently that it must be part of their practice. Got Wings, in its own way, is more metal than anything they've done before, and that elevator is only on the second floor and still rising.
Fire On Fire: Self-titled and The Orchard (2006-2008)
Fire On Fire is a side project with both members of Big Blood and some friends who lived in the same house, including members of Cerberus Shoal. I wonder if they took their name from Swinburne's poem "Laus Veneris": "Her eyelids on her eyes like flower on flower, Mine eyelids on mine eyes like fire on fire." Anyway I'm lumping their two albums together, and I'm not sure where they fit chronologically with Big Blood. This review of The Orchard puts the recording in late 2006, probably between the two Strange Maines.
Hangman is a high-polish version of A Friendly Noose from their first album. The verses alternate with an incredible blend of Colleen's voice and a luminous string tremolo, joined by high fuzz guitar like happy insects. This will eventually be in an indie film and then in a commercial for antidepressants.
Amnesia is a bright, catchy song that might be about reincarnation or about the difficulty of living mindfully. That's a live rehearsal by Fire On Fire, and here's another live Amnesia with just Big Blood. Lyrics sites have the line "And amnesia was forgetting", but I'm pretty sure it's "An amnesia worth forgetting".
Assanine Race is a bluegrassy song with lyrics about social pressures and holding out for success on your own terms: "I gotta keep up with Mr. Jones, and the Devil who eats my brother's bones. When I find him I'll make him wait, as long as my very first date."
Squeeze Box might be the only song where Colleen gives us three different voices. She starts with a rich and twangy folk voice, which rises in the choruses into an ominous wintery tone riding music like doom chamber rock. Then in the second verse, and more clearly in the third, she shifts to a high breathy trill. I think the song is about having a religious experience while drugged in the hospital: the squeeze box is the body, and identity is an illusion, but one we have to work with. "Does a man seek his own face for the flaws in shadows beneath?"
The Grove (2008)
The Grove Is Hotter Than An Ocean's Oven is the first time Colleen's voice has been both this strong and this dark, with this much edge on both the low and high notes. It might also be their only angry song, with lyrics about ecological destruction caused by human progress. "The race is on, radiate your will." Here's a powerful cover by a Ukrainian chorus.
No Gravity Blues is the best minimalist song possible, with just one electric guitar track, one vocal track, and no structure except that the whole thing is a buildup and resolution around the shocking note at 1:44. It affects me so strongly that if it came on the car stereo I would have to pull over. If I started my own country this would be the national anthem, with different singers resolving the vocals into different words. For me, the lyrics are about recovery from depression by seeking the seed of the divine: "If it doesn't really real, may be, go long, be still."
At first I thought No Gravity Blues could be a stripped down version of its companion, Low Gravity Blues, but now I think Low Gravity Blues is a rocked up tribute, and a cornerstone of several noisy songs to come. And Something Brighter Than The News takes an eerie vibe from somewhere between Haystack and No Gravity Blues, and adds more layers.
In The Light Of The Moon is a pretty song on one of my favorite themes, the conflict between the world of dreams and the depressing material world, with great lyrics. "I used to be a lover from a well-oiled plan, but now I'm just loving the things I don't understand."
'Lectric 'Lashes (2008)
This is a collaboration with the band Visitations. Everything is untitled, most of it is improvised, and the only thing I like is side A track 2, a super-dreamy soft-psych song that reminds me of O Willow Waly from the movie The Innocents.
Big Blood and The Bleedin' Hearts (2008)
The Bleedin' Hearts are three other Portland musicians who each play on four songs. One of them is Oh Country (Skin & Bones), which is like a prettier Song For Baltimore: three verses, wordless wailing choruses, and music that gradually builds. It also reminds me of Lon Lon Ranch from Zelda Ocarina of Time, but much more alive, with vocals like sticky ripe fruit on the tree. Here's a video of Oh Country live in which the girl on the mixing board hears the same thing that I do.
The Bleedin' Hearts also play on The Birds & The Herds, a catchy song about animals looking forward to the fall of humanity. Notice the call-and-response structure with two different emotional tones, like a righteous preacher and a happy congregation. The guitar at the end is the most beautiful non-vocal sound in any Big Blood song.
And Graceless Lady is a triumphant collage, a nine minute epic that walks the line between Colleen's happy songs and her dark songs. This was the first Big Blood song I heard, and it's a good choice to introduce a random person to their sound.
Already Gone I and II (2009)
This double album is so experimental that my favorite song is the most conventional, a smooth cover of the 80's hit She Sells Sanctuary, with a great fan video.
Breath In A Seed is deep cowboy blues, like something that would be played around a campfire in a Cormac McCarthy novel. Beatle Bones & Smokin Stones is fun and goofy, and Polly + The Sheep is a psych rock jam with something that sounds like bagpipes. I'm sure there's more good stuff that I haven't decrypted.
Night Terrors On The Isle Of Louis Hardin (2010)
It's a long way from the luminous heights of a song like "Oh Country" to the clattery basement of an album like this. Normally they seem to write songs and then layer them with styles, but here the styles come first. On the surface the album sounds like a casual goth-twee noodling session, but on closer listen it's often meticulously engineered, with disciplined riffs and multiple layers.
You can listen to the whole thing on the bandcamp page. Louis Hardin is better known as Moondog, and several tracks are named after this line from Stamping Ground: "Machines were mice and men were lions once upon a time. But now that it's the opposite, it's twice upon a time." I haven't explored Moondog deeply enough to hear his influence on Big Blood. But I do hear some similarities with more accessible stuff, like the Machinarium soundtrack.
The opener, Sidewalk-Walk/Un-Nole, with its squeaky carnival wagon opening and slow build, is like a quiet version of one of their epic songs. As with most of this album, it's hard to tell what the instruments are. Other than Colleen's voice, the only sound I can confidently identify is a panting dog.
Once Upon A Time has the same minimal industrial rhythm as Camper Van Beethoven's Klondike, but the background whirring makes me think they actually recorded some kind of rustic machinery.
The Nights of Gamelot sounds like something from the Civilization II soundtrack, especially the early ancient turns. Then for the unknown future you could play Machines Were Mice, a glassy symphony of tinkles and chimes like a great steampunk music box.
Men Were Lions sounds like a sequel to Un-Nole, and like an influence on some songs to come. And Head of Horns is another track that reminds me of Camper Van Beethoven, in this case ZZ Top Goes To Egypt.
Dead Songs (2010)
Like Night Terrors, this is not on the free music archive, but it is on bandcamp, and they seem to be trying a different creative process. Colleen's songs all have clear lyrics and relatively simple backing music, as if the words were written in a notebook and then the songs were built around them.
Dead Song is a total success in rocking out. If Big Blood were a classic rock band this would be the one you'd hear on the radio, and I love to sing it. The lyrics seem to be about the dead waiting to reincarnate, or about listening to ancestors. "Remember the chills before being."
A Spiral Down is another tight song with great vocals. And New Eyes is a whispery ballad that gains depth with more listens.
Operators & Things (2010)
At only a minute and twenty seconds, South of Portland is a new level in noise. The sound is pure Halloween, but the the lyrics seem to be about cleansing -- which fits, because when I hear a song that's too bullshitty, South of Portland will clean my brain. It has the same structure as Song For Baltimore: three peaks, each one higher, doing the same thing with more intensity.
Operators and Things is the title of a classic book by Barbara O'Brien about insanity and the power of the subconscious, including creative power, so I wonder if they chose the title because Destin Rain stands with Song For Baltimore as an example of musical possession by Something deeper. The two songs have a similar shock-squeak vocal style, but Destin Rain is even more whimsical and more complex. The only thing I've heard that sounds anything like it is Broken Social Scene's Anthems For A Seventeen Year-Old Girl, but Destin Rain has a lot more going on, and a completely original structure.
It starts with a normal buildup to what sound like verses, but they're never repeated, just more intro to one long rise and fall, with a long plateau at the top whose highest peaks are all doing different things, one exploding star after another. The closest thing to a chorus (a-ooo a-ooooooooo) is sung only twice, once at the very peak of the song and again during its decline -- and right before the first is the line "It came and it went away."
Also sung twice, bracketing the plateau, is the line "The day is long, the bail is set." I think the day is one human life, because the other lyrics are about the stages of life, and the bail is a debt that we pay off by living, engaging with the world of flesh to earn a place in the world of spirit: "Those stars used to be rocks." The title line, "Destin rain, never wet," suggests a life navigated with perfect grace and balance, and every life that comes and goes is part of a seamless unseen circle: "Goodbye, good night, ancient wheel is very tight."
That's the first of the song's three peaks, and the third is the cryptic "They're all steam, they're all steam, they're all steam." This has to be a reference to Ecclesiastes 1:2, "Vanity of vanities, all is vanity," in which "vanity" could also be translated as "vapor".
Dark Country Magic (2010)
Big Blood's most popular album took me a long time to get. Their music seems to demand close listening, and on a close listen this album is not among their best, but it sounds great playing in the background, and it might be the one where the songs fit together best to form a whole.
The opener, Oh My Child, starts with just Colleen's voice, gradually joined by an electronic sound that will anchor the Radio Valkyrie album. When I plugged a bunch of Big Blood songs into Shazam, I discovered that Oh My Child was sampled by a German rap duo in this track.
Next comes my big favorite, Creepin Crazy Time, which takes the sound from The Grove Is Hotter and Dead Song (and the songwriting from Talking Head Pt I) and amps it up into full-on heavy psych, with a chorus like a funhouse fuzzbox.
From there to the end, with every song and every transition, the music walks the line between freaky and listenable, offering depth and demanding little. In isolation, I like the prettiness of She Wander(er) and Coming Home Pt III.
Dark Urrru - Starlings In The Corners Of The Treetops (2010)
A side project of five swampy psychedelic soundscapes, like the haunted robots from Radio Valkyrie got drunk around a campfire. The upload date on that page is 2014, but this post dates it to 2010. My favorite is the title track, for how well its noises fit together.
Radio Valkyrie 1905-1917 (2011)
Discogs has this released in 2013, but this post puts it between Dark Country Magic and Wicked Hex. This is the same kind of thing as Night Terrors, but where that album rattles like a traveling carnival, this one glides and pulses like a spectral submarine. It also reminds me of another fringe couple band, Natural Snow Buildings.
The opener, 40 Days and 40 Nights, is so hypnotic that when I tried to count the verses I kept falling asleep. Cast Iron Hand reminds me of Yo La Tengo, and I wish it were less catchy. Note that they have two songs named Sirens Knell II, one here and one on Fight For Your Dinner. This one has clear roots in Night Terrors, and some more ethereal descendants (see my Space Walk playlist).
Everything Is Improving is out of place here with its tight verse-chorus structure, but it's not like it would fit anywhere else, with filthy guitar over mouth harp and Colleen singing like the queen of the underworld. It does oddly remind me of Rush's Temples of Syrinx.
On the first listen my favorite was The Mirror Like Sea, a dreamy tapestry of high vocals and whale-like electronics over light psych drone.
But the centerpiece of this album is Secret Garden. Theodor Adorno believed that good art cannot be meaningfully broken into parts, only understood as a unified whole, and this is a challenging example that took me a long time to wrap my head around. Now I think it's the the Stairway to Heaven of psychedelic folk. "...and it brings her sunshine."
Big Blood & The Wicked Hex (2011)
It's said that nobody has two revolutions in them: after Shakespeare wrote Hamlet, he wrote Macbeth, not Waiting For Godot. So maybe one day I'll hear something and say, "Oh, there's where Wicked Hex came from." Because it seems impossible that they could strip their sound down to nothing and build it up so suddenly into something so good. Out of a long stormy hiss comes an electric guitar playing single notes in a hypnotic repeating pattern, then at one minute a deep fuzz bass comes in, and at two minutes the vocal track, all of them spare, deliberate, and powerful. The song is Run, and I can't say if it's a light that will be filtered into later songs, or a sketch over which later songs will be painted.
The first of these is Never Let Me Go. Like Run it's long and slow with a deep bass riff, but it's more minor key and much more atmospheric. On Already Gone II they cover my favorite song when I was 13, Blondie's Heart of Glass, in a swampy voodoo style, but here they cover the style of Heart of Glass, feeding its hypnotic bass echo through a deep sludge filter with razor wire vocals, and the result is the most gothic thing I've ever heard. Listen to Heart of Glass from 2:30-2:45 and Never Let Me Go from 2:45-3:50 and you might understand why I love this band so much: every influence they take, they sound so primal and concentrated that it's like the original artist was blandly copying Big Blood. That part and the part from 4:50-6:10 are the meat of the song, and the three choruses are the shiny black wrapping. The sound also reminds me of Alison Moyet's Winter Kills, and oddly the Doctor Who theme.
Between those two, I Will Love You is a noise rock freakout with banshee howls over chanting and feedback. The first time I heard it, it was unlistenable. The most recent time, I got confused about song order and thought, "I don't remember Never Let Me Go being this awesome." This could be a medieval vision of what hell sounds like, or a teenage party in the year 2250, or the battle song of the space funk invasion. I can't even tell whose song it is -- Colleen sings lead but the underlying structure is more like Caleb.
Keening is nine minutes of structureless big-throated high vocals over electronic noise. I don't really like it, but I recognize it as a breakthrough that will lead to songs like Twin Skin II and But I Studied.
Notice, on the boundary between Keening and Water, the whale sounds.
Water is probably Colleen's most ambitious performance, like an opera aria, fourteen minutes of one epic vocal track over guitar and bass -- like you're on a beach, and the gentle waves rise into deep breakers and then a storm of howling wind and lightning. This is what songs in David Lynch movies are trying to be. I have to remind myself that this sound was made by humans. I think it's extremely sad, but I'm not sure.
Micah Blue Smaldone Split (2012)
Micah is a friend who performed with Fire On Fire and on a few Big Blood albums. He does two songs here and they do three, and this is great stuff. Sister is a dirge by Caleb, holding the center between doomy and pretty and heavy and light. Kentucky Babe is a cover of a song from 1896, with thick reverb making Colleen sound more unearthly than ever.
And The Queen and Her Court is an evolution from the Wicked Hex sound, with chords and vocal soloing like Water, in a verse-chorus structure with an insistent slow rhythm like Run, but much prettier -- I love how the sounds come together at the end of each chorus. The lyrics are so orderly that at first I thought it was a cover, and later I thought it might be an elaborate allegory for the creative process. Now I think it has the same uncommon theme as Beat Happening's Our Secret.
Old Time Primitives (2012)
This is one of their longer and more experimental albums. Three songs,
Away part I and part II, and Leviathan Song part I, will reappear with higher numbers on Unlikely Mothers, so I assumed these were early drafts. But in this video from their European tour in 2011, Away already sounds like the 2014 version. So I'm guessing that Away I and II are variations on the live version, while Leviathian I is the raw song that they would later fill out into Part II.
My favorite thing about Away part II is the background, which sounds like fifty silverware windchimes.
Old Time Primitives is super-catchy but sonically challenging, with flange effects on both keyboard and vocals, and some kind of old-timey singing in the background.
Out Of Turn is an evolution (or enhanced outtake) from Wicked Hex, with the same kind of keyboard that's in Old Time Primitives, plus some blistering lead guitar.
Mark the Spot Spot is dense noise over a deconstructed music box, and Caleb's best song is Sirens Knell, which sounds like an orc anthem.
For a long time I thought Shadows for the Land was a murky dud, plus I had the timing wrong. Now that I know it comes after Radio Valkyrie, I hear it as a strong synthesis of many ideas on that album.
Fight For Your Dinner vol. I (2014)
No sign of a volume two, and this is one of their funnest albums, with 17 tracks including several covers and non-musical bits. The title song, Fight For Your Dinner, is a dark piano ballad that I imagine being sung by a cartoon feral cat as she moves through a ruined city.
Sick With Information is like a happy campfire song about human extinction, and I think it's the best they've sung together in years. "With almanacs and earthquakes, we will all celebrate the end."
You Need Then It Comes took me a year to appreciate, probably because it's buried in the middle and only three minutes long. The music is clean and heavy like a space battleship, with a mysterious high instrument complementing harmonium and tight electric guitar that bursts in and out of silence.
In Twin Skin I and II, Colleen continues to explore the vocal style from Keening, and in Twin Skin II it blends into a celestial soundscape like robot church music, the most radical song on the album. The evolution of this voice will continue on their next album in the two Watery Downs.
Unlikely Mothers (2014)
This is my favorite album by anyone, but it took me years to understand it. All nine songs are over seven minutes, and at first you wonder why they're going on so long. But this is a sound where you can search the corners and find treasures, a sound with hardly any frame of reference to make sense of it, except itself.
The opening track, A Watery Down I, is saturated with an Egyptian goddess vibe that sounds a lot like the intro to Zeppelin's In The Light, and also like Koji Kondo's Spirit Temple. At first I dismissed it for its lack of melody or structure, but that's the point -- A Watery Down I is an epic soundscape, with nothing to hold onto but its rising whirls and swells. (Still, I get bits of it stuck in my head.)
Away Pt III is thundering psych rock, merging the skull-cracking vocals of Glory Daze, the rambling looseness of Low Gravity Blues, the power of Creepin Crazy Time, and the hypnotic riffing of Run. I can be totally absorbed in writing, and the one bit on this album that always grabs my attention is the "counting down" verse. If I were a UFC fighter this would be my walkout song.
I wonder how much of a Neil Young fan Caleb is. Because It's Alright is the only song by any other artist that captures the vibe of Crazy Horse. And this is even more concentrated.
Leviathan Song Pt II is another evolution from Wicked Hex, but where The Queen and Her Court lightened the sound, this is just as dark and more stately, with a sharp second guitar track and Colleen really working the low notes. At the end of the song the tone switches from dark to bright, almost like a mirror image of the change in Squeeze Box. "A cycle, a circle."
Thumbnail Moon is nine minutes of industrial sludge, like a powwow of alien cavemen, with awesome doom lyrics. The clearest precedent might be Got Wings, but this is both heavier and more precise, with sonic layering that reminds me of Sequins.
Steppin' Time Pt II has an opening like an approaching thunderstorm -- compare it to All Operations. Then it rolls in as the album's least produced song, almost a live track. (Here's an actual live performance.) It's also the last song from the Wicked Hex family, like Never Let Me Go goes swamp rock.
After a transition that sounds like medieval monks at the center of the earth, So Po Village Stone takes some of the songwriting from Night Terrors, especially Little Lungs, and some of the sound of Radio Valkyrie, and weaves a glorious tapestry of filth, like a shag carpet on fire, with layered howling like carousing ghosts. On my first few listens, I thought So Po Village Stone was a dud. Now I sometimes listen to it three times in a row. I think it's about meditation, exploring "the back of the mind" while focusing on the breath.
Endless Echo sounds like two evil wizards battling at the end of time, but I didn't understand it until I did two things. The second was to play it loud, and I actually bought a more powerful stereo mainly to hear this one song louder. And the first thing I did was to study its ancestry. The sound goes at least as far back as the shock-shriek peak of Cerberus Shoal's Baby Gal, and in the Big Blood years it goes back to Don't Trust The Ruin. That song's vocals are the divine light of hippie Satan, nothing can touch them, but it should be possible to put similar vocals to much more powerful music, and I imagine they were patiently circling that goal for seven years. South of Portland packed the sound tighter, I Will Love You unpacked it into free noise, Sirens Knell made a full epic template, and Endless Echo brings it all together, Big Blood's dark sun. "So beautiful through a broken piece of glass."
A Watery Down II is like Haystack goes to the Pleiades. Big Blood has at least fifty songs with three choruses, only Serpent Skies has four, and only A Watery Down II has five, with every verse doing something different. At over 15 minutes, it's their longest song and also the one I've heard the most times.
The spine of the song is the bassline, a four-measure ramble that leads the drums and needs no help: the guitar is arrhythmic and tinselly, and keyboards swirl like fishes around verses of trilly nonsense and choruses like beckoning mermaids. This is the happy fade-out music for reality itself, and the downward-pointing words and sounds remind me of an idea from David Abram's Becoming Animal, that gravity is the love of the earth to which all things return.
Double Days I (2015)
Their music has always had a bit of electronics, but on this album they're front and center. It sounds like they got a good analog synth and did some serious woodshedding. The opener, On Waterfall's Head, is just Colleen's voice and one keyboard track. Then Rabbit's Foot stacks up the layers into cotton candy robot funk.
At the core of the album are two covers, a stunning interpretation of Black Sabbath's Planet Caravan, and a sleepy, slow-building cover of The Cure's Disintegration, which has the album's only obvious guitar. On this home recording, both songs surpass the originals in the precision and depth of the sound engineering. Between those, the near-instrumental For Gardiner Greene Hubbard sounds like a magical factory.
But with hindsight, the most important song on the Double Dayses is a deep-space anthem mysteriously titled ...But I Studied. I think its name reflects a commitment to advancing their sound. The song has some precedent in No Gravity Blues and Sirens Knell II, but it brings those sounds into a clean and strange focus, and throws it forward to all three of their 2017/2018 albums.
Double Days II (2015)
Their most consistently happy album adds layers of elegance to their early folk vibe. Compare New Plan from this album with She Wander(er) from Dark Country Magic: the 2010 sound was loose and watery, and the 2015 sound is tight and airy. And to keep themselves from getting accidentally popular, or to remind us what kind of band they are, every major song has radio-unfriendly weird sounds at the end.
Did Caleb have any pretty songs between Night Lighter in 2008 and Sick With Information in 2014? Now he has two more, Endless Peace and Magnetic Green. Under its thick collage of celestial synth and vocals, Magnetic Green is one of the best love songs you'll ever hear. "I will marry your song to my sound / I will bury my roots in your ground."
Time Stands Still sounds like a wedding song from mystical ancient Scotland, but the lyrics are more like a happy funeral. It's unusual for getting loud all at once instead of gradually, and my favorite bit is where, right after it gets loud, she sings "suffer".
And Go See Boats is a perfect arrangement of top-grade ear candy, as beautifully polished as their early stuff is beautifully raw. The lyrics are based on something Quinnisa said at the ocean, and when I wrote them down I realized they're totally metaphysical: we are all "minor seacoasts" in the ocean of universal consciousness, and to "walk on water" is to fully connect with others, or maybe to die. This is like a lost verse of Ecclesiastes:
You've got some fun, speak your own
Creation without us untying to your bone
Promise in this day time
Do your things
Human Adult Band split single (2015)
One dark, metallic, catchy song: Half Light Blues. If Kurt Cobain were alive he would cover this.
Elliott Schwartz & Big Blood - Ant Farm (2016)
This was made as the soundtrack to an art exhibit about leafcutter ants, and it really does sound like ants. It also reminds me of Suffer Creation, but more complex and sophisticated. I recommend listening on good headphones.
Big Blood and Thunder Crutch (2017)
Thunder Crutch is Chuck Bettis and Yuko Tonohira, and this album was released as a CD-R by Bettis in April of 2017. Also the releases tab of dontrustheruin dates it before Daughter's Union, although it was not released online until March of 2018. Here's the album on Free Music Archive and Bandcamp.
Some of this album sounds like a direct sequel to Ant Farm. Compare Fungus Garden on that album with Saturn on this one.
The opener, Standard Aberation, is a clear descendant of Sidewalk-Walk/Un-Nole, the opener from Night Terrors. Notice how much sharper the edges are. This whole album is a decisive move in a direction they've been leaning for a while: away from the backwoods and toward deep space. Nowhere is there any guitar, or anything you would call folk.
Of the somewhat normal songs, Underneath He Is A Girl was my immediate favorite. Colleen's voice is high in the mix, and she sings like a bright knife, making the spaces between feel darker. Later on the album, State of Science has the same sound but denser.
Make Way is a sonic headpunch cold as a glacier and hard as a train. With its emotional tone and double-wave structure, it reminds me of Water. Remember is You is like a squeaky sequel to A Mirror Like Sea.
There are two spoken word songs, the ghostlike Soil For Shady Grass, and the domestic ramble of Sweaty Pants. They're both so personal, so distinctive, and so well done, that I'm wondering if they've been recording songs like this for a long time, and only now are they starting to release them to the public.
And maybe the most creative song on the album is Red Light, written and sung by Quinnisa. It sounds like Bjork's "It's Oh So Quiet" got in a car crash.
The Daughters Union (2017)
Overall this reminds me of Double Days I: two covers plus a variety of refined experiments. My favorite originals are the opener and closer, Blind Owl I and Blind Owl II, alternate versions of an unearthly collage with roots that go all the way back to Ballad Of The 13 Year Old. This must be what saintly hillbillies hear when they die.
On Reproduce & Get Dirty Colleen unveils a new voice, similar to what I call her "real person" voice from The Archivist & The Archeologist in 2010, but amped up and rapping, and then the choruses are full-on space rock.
Our Love Will Still Be There, a Troggs cover, blew me away on the first listen, and it's still the one I listen to loudest. Colleen rarely uses such a high and intense voice, but if I could sing like this, I would sing like this all the time.
Stars Sewn Into Our Skies is the only song on this diverse album that I can fit into an ongoing evolutionary thread. It's like But I Studied with the full ambition of Graceless Lady.
On & On is as catchy as Old Time Primitives and much more complex, with backing music like some kind of funky haunted factory.
I Have Known Love is a Silver Apples cover that does justice to some of the best lyrics ever written.
Operate Spaceship Earth Properly (2018)
A major album, with some songs that have been in the works for years. This WFMU live show from 2015 has When I Was Young and a yet-untitled Olamina. Most of the music is not yet available online, but you can buy it here.
I sometimes wonder how musicians decide how to order the songs on an album, and this is the first album where I've gone out of my way to listen to the songs in a different order. One of my sub-albums goes Wishy Wishy I, Wishy Wishy II, and No Human Color, and the other goes When I Was Young, Takver, and Olamina. One of the other songs, Pink Eye, was probably written by Quinnisa, and she plays all the guitars on the album.
In the liner notes, Olamina is written much larger than the other songs, and it's clearly intended to be the album's centerpiece, a nine minute tribute to Octavia Butler. But my favorite is Wishy Wishy I. It walks the line between structured song and sonic experimentation, like Twin Skin II filtered through Standard Aberation.
Deep Maine (2019)
Squeaking in at the end of the year, this album's title seems to be a nod to their early stuff, and in the personnel list, their alter-egos are back, and Quinnisa is absent. But the sound reminds me more of Double Days and Daughter's Union. The whole thing is on Bandcamp.
Hail The Happy Hourlings is their most magical song since Destin Rain. Colleen sings the whole thing at the top of her range, with her throat fully open, and that voice is better here than it's ever been. At first I thought the song might be about short-lived flying insects, but now I think it's about the beings who live briefly inside us. They could be anything from the fairies of inspiration, to the people in our dreams, to video game characters, and they're praying for rain so that we stay inside and give them more of our time.
It's interesting to compare Baby Eyes to Under The Concourse from 2006. The early song has more raw beauty, but the new song is more sonically sophisticated.
Time Is Coming sounds like a hippie ballad from 1970, and contains some rare guitar solos.
A Message Sent is one of Caleb's best and saddest songs. It's like a sequel to The Fall of Quinnisa Rose, with a touch of Sick With Information, filtered through the two Twin Skins, which the title references.
Like the Twin Skins and the Aways, The Queen and Her Court II is not a sequel, but the same song in a different style. Where the original is one of their lushest songs, the sound here is bleak and dramatic.
Serpent Skies combines the epic luminosity of Time Stands Still, with the drone of Polly + The Sheep. It's a strong blend of sounds, which in hindsight seems inevitable.
Finally, there's a nice cover of Lloyd Cheechoo's James Bay. It reminds me a lot of Go See Boats. This is the kind of music that would be on loop in heaven.
Do You Wanna Have A Skeleton Dream? (2020)
I thought Quinnisa might eventually eclipse her parents, but not this soon. She had one good song on Thunder Crutch, and here she has three, and they're the most catchy and memorable songs on the album.
Her style is bubble-gum 60's soul, and her songs are a triptych of her voice. In the first, Sweet Talker, she belts it out at the low end of her range, and her vowel shapes remind me a bit of Alex Chilton. In the second song, Real World, her voice is high and bird-like.
The third song, Insecure Kids, brings it all together in a one-take masterpiece. If it wasn't Big Blood, I'd think they were using autotune. Where Colleen's voice is extremely airy, Quinnisa has all four elements in balance. I don't know if she'll ever channel the high planes like her mom can, but she's now the strongest singer in the band.
You can listen or buy the album here. The non-Quin songs are all from Colleen, and my favorite is Pox. It's one of her spookier songs, and the spookiness is not ambient but in your face, like the overture of a witch symphony.
And Monsters of Men has a great line: "Pain is what steers us senseward."
Because their albums are so difficult, I approached Big Blood through songs, and making these lists has been a rewarding exercise in teasing apart the threads of their musical language. In 2018 I added two new playlists with some of their weirder stuff, and in early 2019, I merged them with Camper Van Beethoven on my favorite songs page.
Introduction to Big Blood: She Said Nothing, Squeeze Box, In The Light Of The Moon, Graceless Lady, The Birds & The Herds, Dead Song, Creepin Crazy Time, It's Alright, Time Stands Still, Olamina.
Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun: Full Of Smoke, Hangman, Adversaries & Enemies, Under The Concourse, Oh Country, The Rise of Quinnisa Rose, Song For Baltimore, Sick With Information.
A Watery Down: A Watery Down I, Indang Pariman, Sequins, Don't Trust The Ruin II, Haystack, Destin Rain, Hail The Happy Hourlings, A Watery Down II.
Hex-Away: Run, I Will Love You, Never Let Me Go, Water, The Queen and Her Court, Away part II, Away part I, Away Pt III.
Trust The Ruin: Don't Trust The Ruin, Vitamin C, Got Wings?, The Grove Is Hotter Than An Ocean's Oven, South Of Portland, Everything Is Improving, Sirens Knell, Endless Echo.
Village Walk: Sidewalk-Walk/Un-Nole, Starlings In The Treetops, Secret Garden, Shadows for the Land, So Po Village Stone.
Space Walk: Sidewalk-Walk/Un-Nole, Sirens Knell II (RV), ...But I Studied, Make Way, Wishy Wishy I.
Top Ten Lists
My goal here is to show the depth and quality of Big Blood's discography by posting honest top ten lists with minimum overlap. Send your lists to ranprieur at gmail. Songs from any album on this page may be included, and I'll arrange them by release date and track number.
The Rise of Quinnisa Rose
Adversaries & Enemies
Song For Baltimore
Haystack (BB version)
No Gravity Blues
Away Pt III
A Watery Down Pt II
Haystack (FOF version)
The Archivist & The Archeologist
A Watery Down Pt I
Steppin' Time Pt II
A Watery Down Pt II
Time Stands Still
Song for Baltimore
The Grove Is Hotter Than An Ocean's Oven
She Sells Sanctuary
Heart of Glass
40 Days and 40 Nights
Everything Is Improving
I Will Love You
Never Let Me Go
The Birds & The Herds
40 Days and 40 Nights
Everything Is Improving
Reproduce & Get Dirty
Thank You For The Path
Creepin Crazy Time
Never Let Me Go
The Queen and Her Court
You Need Then It Comes
Leviathan Song Pt II
Time Stands Still
Time Is Coming
Creepin Crazy Time
Ringers in the Fold
Song for RO-HE-GE
So Po Village Stone
For Gardiner Greene Hubbard
Reproduce & Get Dirty
Blind Owl I & II