One can always expect the unexpected from Lasher Keen. When the psychedelic folk band headed by multi-instrumental husband-and-wife duo Dylan Sheets and Bluebird Gaia announced they were making a foray into musical theater, I could only shake my head with a smile and think to myself, ‘of course they are’. With this announcement came the news that their next album would be a soundtrack of said production, the two sharing a name: The Middle Kingdom. Sheets, Lasher Keen’s voice and songwriter, has delved headlong into his love for Celtic myth, penning a full theater production complete with acting, dance, and, of course, live music based around the Irish myth of The Wooing of Etain and inspired by the poetical and theatrical works of Ireland’s literary master, William Butler Yeats. The album came out shortly before the play’s debut in the spring of this year.
I can imagine someone leafing through crates of vinyl at a record store, coming across The Middle Kingdom and mistaking it for an oddity from the late ’60s. ‘Is this the Incredible String Band channeling Rick Wakeman?‘, they might ask. Even the production is as spacious and organic as classic albums of that time. All to this record’s credit, as so many bands try much harder to seem like throwbacks and only reveal themselves as modern; Lasher Keen does it with a timeless grace.
The songs are perhaps the band’s most succinct, yet there is a marked shift in tone compared with their previous works. I would imagine this is due to the nature of theater; each musical number has its role to fulfill, and as much as I like thirty-minute psychedelic jam interludes, I can’t imagine they would serve a stage production very well. However, without the visual and textual narrative of the play, the songs don’t stand alone as well as some of band’s catchier songs like Berserker’s ‘Rainmaker’ or ‘Dancing Sounds’ from last year’s Mantic Poetry, Oracular Prophecy. Divorced from the rest of the play, the album becomes a sort of teaser for the full experience. In a way, that’s precisely what Lasher Keen have done, as their music wouldn’t be nearly as effective without their imagery and charmingly strange stage presence. Yet, with The Middle Kingdom, this gap becomes even more evident.
The arrangements center more around Sheets’ harp and voice, with occasional instrumental interludes that I assume accompany dancing and other on-stage action, and which are less guitar-based than the band’s previous works. One of the standout tracks, the opening ‘Children of the Sun’, is a ballad featuring only piano, Sheets’ vocals, sparse percussion, and a children’s choir. It begins ominously enough, with a call and response between Sheets and the choir, until a shift near the middle of the song takes the piano into a plodding solo that reminds one of a combination of classical piano mixed with something that the Doors’ Ray Manzarek could have written. ‘A Mantle of Stars’ is likewise a standout track; it’s melodically compelling, very dynamic, and ends with some of the best vocal interplay I’ve heard of its kind. While I’ve often listened to those first few tracks on repeat, many of the other songs meander, and sometimes the narrative is unclear, but the compositions are always intricate and well-performed. They just don’t grab me on their own.
Time will tell whether or not The Middle Kingdom stands out as an oddity in Lasher Keen’s output or if it is simply the beginning of a new creative phase. If Sheets’ announcement at the last Thirst for Light gathering is anything to go on, the band isn’t done with far-out ideas. During their performance, Sheets said he’s writing a collection of children’s songs! Perhaps a little bit of musical theater doesn’t seem so strange after all.
01) Children of the Sun
02) A Mantle of Stars
03) Castle of the Crystal Swans
04) Sleep Spell
05) The Promised Voyage
06) Wind Spell
07) Mocking Bard
08) Red Eared Oxen of Unbridled Flame
09) The Immortal Hour