“Even when I am gone, I shall remain in people’s minds the star of their rights, my name will be the war cry of their efforts, the motto of their hopes.” —Napoleon Bonaparte
While perhaps not immediately at the forefront of one’s mind when it comes to comprehending the current state of our globalized world of conflicts, refugees, political elections, and so on, the ever-present yet invisible hand of Napoleon still reaches from the depths of history to sculpt and influence our reality. It is perhaps the generals and the artisans that recognize this everlasting significance of Napoleon, as his campaigns are studied in academies while artists continue to depicted him in every media fathomable, from statues to films, cartoons to poems, and paintings to music.
Napoleonic Blues is the seventh album by Richard Leviathan’s Ostara and his second release with the prestigious American label Soleilmoon, coming three years after the release of Paradise Down South. As the title implies, Napoleonic Blues is a concept album, though not explicitly about the legendary Emperor of the French and his deeds. Leviathan takes a different approach to addressing history through his music when compared to his neofolk contemporaries. Most neofolk bands favor a romantic approach, focusing their songs on perceived superior times in the past and expressing adoration to events that have come and gone. The other side of the spectrum is the protest-folk style of addressing history, usually in a cautionary capacity about dark acts in history destined to be repeated. While Napoleonic Blues is certainly reflective in regards to Napoleon and his influence on major global and historic events, Leviathan’s manner is neither adoration or condemnation, but contextualization. Per Leviathan:
“..the shadow [Napoleon] cast was enormous. Out of it crept other modern Caesars, born of revolutions, moral nihilism and the aesthetics of violence. That shadow still lingers over more than half the earth, all the way from Russia to America and south to the Middle East. Our own age is heavy with consequence as the West teeters and new powers emerge.”
And with contextualization comes perhaps the true intent of Napoleonic Blues, the lifting of the illusory veil, revealing what Leviathan believes to be the true state of affairs:
“It is difficult to isolate myself from these impinging events. I think that we are all to some extent caught up in them, perhaps ever since 9/11. The Millennium that seemed to have ushered in a more peaceful, stable world, the Pax Americana, was of course an illusion and history, far from slowing down to a predictably ordered end, was once again accelerating into a volatile trajectory in which technology, progress and liberty would coincide with madness, hubris and war. Though we are able to detach ourselves from reality in the virtual domains from which we gaze at the modern ruins of faraway places, we also realise that those forces are not so far from home and can erupt at any time, from beyond and within our fragile nature. Hell is where the heart is.”
The gravity of Leviathan’s intentions with Napoleonic Blues may seem daunting at a cursory glance, but it is quite the opposite; the album is extremely accessible. Ostara has always been a thinking man’s neofolk outfit: Leviathan challenges the listeners without going into theatrics, posturing, or abrasiveness that is customary with other acts in the post-industrial underground. Instead, he serves concepts on a silver platter, but never heavy-handed. Part of this is due to the delivery of catchy neofolk music that has flavorings of pop aesthetics.
As with Paradise Down South, Napoleonic Blues eschews a slow build intro and instead hooks the listener by launching directly into the music, welcoming them with a bit of pomp and flair in the opening moments of “Devil in Detroit.” Leviathan not only uses imagery of the ruins of antiquity to describe one of the former industrial capitals of the world, but employs creative alliteration to make his poetry stand out. For example, where a typical poet may reference “roads to Rome” in any sort of capacity to show great empires and cities falling, Leviathan instead utters “one hundred roads to rust” to cater this specific ruination to a city heavily associated with the automobile industry. This clever wordplay is evident throughout other moments in Napoleonic Blues as well. Another example, the age-old proverb “drawing blood from a stone,” is reversed in “Blood to Stone.” This Medusa-like quality complements the sombre vocals and lyrics, flavoring them with antiquity as well. Conversely, there is something paradoxically enchanting when the lyrics to “Burnt Offerings” and “The Caliphate” are sung to vocals that lean more toward the romantic side in execution. With a less skilled singer, the pop-folk vocals would come off as insincere to these sorts of songs; yet, Leviathan hits that note that brings these apocalyptic subjects down to a presentable format.
Leviathan’s historic gaze is not just restricted to world events as he turns to self-reflection, casting his gaze inwards by revisiting past material. “Proud Black Templar” from the 2003 album Ultima Thule is slightly reworked and turned into an outro for Napoleonic Blues. The lyrics have not been altered, but the new title, simply “Black Templar,” omits the adjective of the prior version, perhaps adding an additional hint of humility to one of Leviathan’s best songs in his repertoire. The song proper is substantially shorter than the original, but otherwise, it is not too drastically altered. The biggest change is Leviathan employing multiple layers of vocals starting at different times, akin to Current 93’s “Twilight Twilight Nihil Nihil.” The results are still as haunting as the original, and provide excellent closure to the album.
Napoleonic Blues is released in vinyl format, limited to 256 copies. The artwork on the cover is by Konstantin Antioukhin and underscores Leviathan’s texts perfectly. Per Leviathan:
“Napoleon is quite easy to admire as well as satirise as one of the arch-villains and defeated heroes of history. I remember reading a book called Napoleon: For and Against. You rarely see a title like that written about modern dictators. He is very ambiguous and I think this painting conveys that most aptly. Though perhaps more on the grotesque and satirical side, it does not descend into a mere caricature. There is still something of the power of the man and the myth in the portrait. Indeed, it seems that it is a sympathetic mockery of all power, including the belligerents who took Napoleon on and won.”
The art indeed straddles both the grotesque and the sympathetic, but there’s even more going on with it. The faded grey-blues of Antioukhin’s piece gives the impression one might be looking at currency, specifically banknotes. This is an appropriate feeling due to Napoleonic Blues being considered a sibling piece to Paradise Down South, an album that addressed the financial world with songs such as “Debt on Credit.”
After the success of Paradise Down South, it was a challenge for Leviathan to try and push himself even further. In his words, “with [Napoleonic Blues], I get the same positive vibe as Paradise Down South, a confidence born of a long hard labour that I can savour and which makes me soberly proud, sober because it is so easy to get carried away with new material.” It can safely be said that Leviathan has surpassed his prior work. Both longtime listeners of Ostara and even potential new fans will be able to appreciate Napoleonic Blues. The album occupies a special place for Leviathan: “Napoleonic Blues is perhaps my personal favourite, meaning that the demand to do better needed to be satisfied. Setting the bar high means that there is a risk of not clearing it. But why settle for anything less?” The craftsmanship Leviathan has put into Napoleonic Blues is present in every aspect of the full package: multifaceted artwork, insightful but not heavy-handed poetry, and polished neofolk sounds with distinctive vocals that have a peppering of pop to them. This is a polished standout album—a testament that the neofolk genre is still capable of seminal work. Why settle for less indeed?
A1) Devil in Detroit
A2) The Rift
A3) Blood to Stone
A4) The Caliphate
A5) Burnt Offerings
A6) Napoleonic Blues
B1) Red Swan
B3) Pyre in the Sky
B4) Dark Night of the Soul
B5) Black Templar