Crippled Black Phoenix – (Mankind) The Crafty Ape

written by: February 3, 2012
Release Date: Feb. 7, 2012


Put on your best set of noise-canceling headphones and for the love of God, don’t drive or operate any heavy machinery while listening to (Mankind) The Crafty Ape. Crippled Black Phoenix has created one of the richest, lushest soundscapes in recent memory. When you hear it, you are going to want to do everything possible to trap yourself in a world where there is just you and the music. This album is a point-by-point refutation of all the most common problems with big, dark, ambitious sounds, and it’s almost perfectly crafted from beginning to end.

Crippled Black Phoenix is a supergroup, formed by musicians who were all involved with other projects, notably Dominic Aitchison of Mogwai, although drummer Justin Greaves (Electric Wizard) is the driving force behind the band. Since 2006, members have been recording “entime ballades,” a term meant to refer to both the occasionally bleak tone of their work, and also their skill at combining musical tools and styles that range from modern to Victorian into a cohesive whole. The genius of Crippled Black Phoenix isn’t so much in its subject matter as it is its craftsmanship.

One of the most common criticisms leveled against albums with a strong prog-rock influence is that they write checks that they can’t cash. They have crescendos that can’t live up to overly long buildups, or they have overly loud crescendos without any variation. If you want to get away from all that and hear a mastery of pacing and poise so complete that it’s positively theatrical, you’ve got it on “The Heart of Every Country.” This is a song that, like a fantastic performer, draws the listener in with a quiet beginning so masterfully done that your heart catches in your throat and then builds sublimely to a finish that is big and touching. Whatever you were hoping to get done during the full 10 minutes of this song? Forget it, because you’ll be hanging on every note.

The very next track, “Get Down and Live With It” is another triumph of musical craftsmanship. It’s one of the hardest-rocking tracks on the album, with driving drums, desperate, half-shouted cries and backing gospel vocals that are by turns chilling and uplifting. Never once do the distinct pieces of this number melt together into an over-loud indistinct fuzz. It’s a wonderfully dark-sounding song with a distinct beginning, middle and end, like a good story. There are lyrics, but the real triumph of this piece is creating mood and a sense of narrative without ever really needing to say a single word.

There are lyrics, but the real triumph of this piece is creating mood and a sense of narrative without ever really needing to say a single word.

It’s astonishing just how good Crippled Black Phoenix is at playing with genre. Listen to the band ape bits from other distinct styles and make them their own. For example, “(What?),” a wonderfully jazzy interlude worlds apart from the rocking “The Heart of Every Country” or the barfight from “Release the Clowns.” For one glorious moment at the start of “Born in a Hurricane” the band announces itself with a glorious big-bandlike flourish before doubling down into a stripped-down call-to-arms, and it sounds great. The credit goes to the perfect sense of flow and pacing.

Pacing guides individual songs such as the epic end-piece “Faced with Complete Failure, Utter Defiance Is the Only Response” from quiet to intense and back again. That same flow also guides one song perfectly into the next, putting swells of music and whispered moments exactly where they need to be. It puts even the most carefully constructed concept album to shame with the care that’s been taken to create a complete product. The end result is an album that demands to be listened to as a whole, which is never a chore despite its length.

Of course, no album can be all things to everyone. This is a rich, dense album with musical ambitious that the less charitable might misconstrue as pretentious. Any listener who felt their ears perk up at that description should let nothing stop them from hunting down this near-perfect jewel of craftsmanship. Like any good novel, it rewards the careful listener each time it is experienced.

Crippled Black Phoenix — (Mankind) The Crafty Ape tracklist:

  1. “Chapter I (A Thread): Nothing (We Are…)”
  2. “Chapter I (A Thread): The Heart of Every Country”
  3. “Chapter I (A Thread): Get Down and Live With It”
  4. “Chapter I (A Thread): (In Yonder Marsh)”
  5. “Chapter I (A Thread): A Letter Concerning Dogsheads”
  6. “Chapter I (A Thread): The Brain/Poznan”
  7. “Chapter II (The Trap): Laying Traps”
  8. “Chapter II (The Trap): Born in a Hurricane”
  9. “Chapter II (The Trap): Release the Clowns”
  10. “Chapter II (The Trap): (What?)”
  11. “Chapter III: (The Blues of Man): A Suggestion (Not a Very Nice One)”
  12. “Chapter III: (The Blues of Man): (Dig, Bury, Deny)”
  13. “Chapter III: (The Blues of Man): Operation Mincemeat”
  14. “Chapter III: (The Blues of Man): We Will Never Get Out of This World Alive”
  15. “Chapter III: (The Blues of Man): Faced with Complete Failure, Utter Defiance Is the Only Response”