Despite some of the sinister connotations associated with them, the carnival was originally intended to serve as an annual event of reflection and cultural parity. Sure, there’s always the counter arguments of freak shows and the historical significance of lent, but for many urbanites the yearly event instantly brings to mind one thing: “The Mighty Wurlitzer.” Robert Hope-Jones’ iconic theater organ was meant to be a “one-man orchestra” to accompany silent movies but served many public purposes until it they were discontinued. Both playfully versatile in portability and playability, it also can still silence a room (or a tent) with its surprising volume.
It’s a strange instrument to accent the more hopeful sequel to Crippled Black Phoenix’s A Love of Shared Disasters (2007), but there it is on the cover and folded into these 12 tracks. The glacial doom-rock opener “Burnt Reynolds” features the organ as its unexpected dénouement, and “A Real Bronx Cheer” bounces around a haunted house of mirrors that’s full of them. Both instances would seem a lot weirder if it weren’t for the piano-and-choral track “A Hymn for a Lost Soul” and the massive song suite “Time of Ye Life/Born For Nothing/Paranoid Arm of Narcoleptic Empire.” The latter contains a spoken word dub that implores the listener to put up a sign that reads: “Today is going to be a good day in my life / I’m going to have a lot of fun.” Anybody remember 1999’s “Everybody’s Free (To Wear Sunscreen)”? Yeah, I thought so.
The ’80s synth-rock of the song’s second act plods along before a furious electronic speaker blowout closes “Paranoid Arm.” Despite these head-scratching derailments, 200 Tons of Bad Luck brings the gloom in Biblical doses. There’s even room for sweeping instrumental epics like “Wendigo” and closing track “I Am Free, Today I Perished,” both of which contain the texture of a found-sound track. With both, the Bristol group have seemed to jettison some of their alt-rock tendencies, which was the main flaw of their debut. Some remain on the ambling “Whissendine,” but crunchy power-rockers like “444” and “Rise Up and Fight” make the best of the situation. “Littlestep” even has a sprite melody and piano figure that Spiritualized would cop any day. Still, the long-running length does bear down on even Bad Luck‘s best moments. All groups need an editor.
The members of Crippled Black Phoenix — founding member Justin Greaves (Electric Wizard/Iron Monkey/Teeth of Lions Rule Devine), Dominic Aitchison (Mogwai), Kostas Panagiotou (Pantheist), Charlotte Nichols, and vocalist Joe Volk (Gonga) — haven’t streamlined their “end-time ballads,” but the year spent at Geoff Barow’s State of Art Studios reveals a band on a slight editorial upswing. Greaves spoke at length about the album’s newfound sense of hope: “[200 Tons of Bad Luck] is about the feeling of fighting back and standing up for yourself, celebrating the things that have saved your life, shouting about the injustices and laughing at how shit everything is. And a bit more about dying.”
Once an apocalyptic, always an apocalyptic? Maybe so. Crippled Black Phoenix have never been weighed down by The Four Horseman as much as their ability to translate all those brilliant ideas into their own Book of Revelation-themed carnival.