Tony Cesa has been a name that has fluttered around American neofolk circles for many years now, and is one that I’ve become accustomed to seeing without ever having had the opportunity to hear his Destroying Angel project until recently. The project name has been dropped sparingly in the past few years since its inception, but it would be impossible to miss for anyone paying attention to the American neofolk scene surrounding Philadelphia and New York City. For those who haven’t been able to catch the project in a live setting in this time, the first opportunity to hear Destroying Angel came in late 2014 with the release of Morituri Te Salutant‘s oft-celebrated Divided We Fall: Heathen Folk from North America compilation. Destroying Angel’s inclusion here immediately put them among some other impressive new names from Blood and Sun and Night Profound to seminal genre peers in Changes, Awen, and David E. Williams—the latter of which appears to have joined the project as a full-time member since the release of this EP, wherein he saw a guest spot on its impressive title track. Whether or not it was this compilation appearance that led to their partnership with T. J. Cowgill (King Dude)’s Not Just Religious Music imprint for their forthcoming debut full-length is unknown, but by the time I’d first received this late-2015 EP, Mother Is Dead, those wheels were already turning.
There are two aspects of Destroying Angel that stand out on Mother Is Dead that have stoked my curiosity for what is to follow next month with Conversations with Their Holy Guardian Angel. The first is Cesa’s willful, unusually strong vocal performance. It has long been a trope of the genre that you don’t really put on a neofolk or neofolk-influenced record and expect to hear a vocalist belting out and simply “putting it all out there” for the world to hear, but that’s exactly what you’ll find here—not just in performance, but in lyrical, emotive, and even subtly political honesty:
“Some armies march to theology
Some armies march to ideals
But all will wash ashore from the tidal wave
I see your arrogance marching proud
But we all die the same
Our embers are bright
The wheel doesn’t recognize nationality
The wheel doesn’t recognize your race”
With the exception of the atmospheric, vengeful ghost story of “Zinc Mine”—whose lyrics clearly call to mind the coal mine fire still burning beneath the famous Centralia, Pennsylvania ghost town—there’s also something unmistakably wild in an Irish-punk / bar-room-ballad way in Cesa’s voice, and it just works so ridiculously well with the big-band yet straightforward approach that Destroying Angel have taken on musically. Even with five members present for this release, they seem to pick a stripped-down tonal and melodic direction and stick with it through each track, allowing Cesa’s vocals to shine. The stripped-down approach is, of course, nothing new to folk music of any kind, but its powerful support role has left me as excited for this coming full-length as the rest of the global neofolk scene was in 2013 for Blood and Sun’s White Storms Fall.
The second unique aspect of Destroying Angel is that, for a band named after a particularly deadly species of toxic mushroom, there are curiously few moments on Mother Is Dead that could be classified or described as blatantly psychedelic in nature, album artwork aside. The band seems to have developed a stable bridge between neofolk and psych folk that draws out the best, most accessible aspects of both worlds and places them on a foundation of subtle but clear punk roots. I can’t honestly say how well this is destined to play out over the course of a full-length album, but for the short duration of this EP, it’s just the right dose of everything, resulting in an extremely satisfying listen that is ultimately a clear example of the evolution the genre beyond its typical, tired conventions.
Mother Is Dead has been released in an edition of 300 and is still available (along with a digital edition) from Destroying Angel’s Bandcamp page.
A1) Mother Is Dead
A2) Zing Mine
B1) The Wheel