Indiana's Murder by Death layers the vocal sounds of an old saloon with the haunting strings of an Hungarian folk dance and the hard driving rhythms of pure rock n' roll, producing what Stuff magazine has called "lush, orchestrated songs," somehow simultaneously reminiscent of Johnny Cash and Radiohead. Added to that thick and intriguing sound are a series of dark and ironic lyrics, combining the mood and tone of Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds with the narrative force of the Decemberists or a short story by Nathanial Hawthorne. Adam Turla fills out these sometimes frightening, sometimes beautiful lyrics by conjuring up a cast of character voices, allowing the songs to speak with the force of the characters themselves, and providing the listener with a sense of ensemble unique in rock music.
But this ensemble feel is not only the result of Turla's vocal playfulness, but of the cohesive playing of the band itself. Sarah Balliet channels her Kentucky Bluegrass roots through the skilled hands of a concert cellist, playing point and counterpoint to the lyrics and guitars with magnificent grace and style. Matt Armstrong's bass guitar provides the rhythmic framework of the band, but also takes the lead with surprising frequency, guiding Murder by Death into driving highs and brooding lows. And Alex Schrodt's drumsticks almost dance across the skins, giving the band what the Chicago Reader called "a rhythm section Nick Cave or the Faint would die for." The result is a fascinating slice of American Gothic, replete with trail rides, whiskey shots and Old Scratch himself.
Murder by Death's unique sound has developed over several years of touring and recording. Constantly evolving their sound, the style changes from their first release "Like The Exorcist, But More Breakdancing" to their sophomore release, "Who Will Survive, and What Will Be Left of Them?". "Who Will Survive..." grew from a small, limited pressing album into a sleeper hit as they constantly toured the country, sharing the stage with bands as diverse as The Weakerthans, Rasputina, Lucero, Against Me!, and William Elliott Whitmore. "Who Will Survive's..." rich narrative structure, which recounted the travails of a small western town besieged by the devil, not only garnered popular and critical attention, but inspired a number of artistic reactions and responses, including ballet and stage productions, paintings, and even a PhD thesis.
The band's new album, entitled "In Bocca al Lupo," forgoes the integrated narrative structure of "Who will Survive..., " presenting the listener with an album built on thematic connections. "In Bocca al Lupo," which translates roughly to "In the Mouth of the Wolf" (a phrase said before students take exams in Italian classrooms, and to which the students respond "Kill the Wolf"), examines themes of sin, transgression, punishment, and redemption, touching on different lives and different stories in each individual song. The resulting album resembles the 1979 murder mystery from which the band takes its name-a pastiche of bad deeds and good intentions, of last minute heroism and, in some cases, nearly impossible forgiveness.
Musically, "In Bocca al Lupo" is as diverse as the various stories that the album recounts. The songs themselves reflect the stories they tell-gritty rock and roll beats drive "Brother" and "Sometimes the Line Walks You," complex tango rhythms twine themselves through "One More Notch," and lonely western guitars accompany the simple elegance of "Shiola" and "Raw Deal." Each of the album's ballads and waltzes, chants and hard hitting rock songs, meld content and form, creating meaning in the music itself. Murder by Death's unique musical aesthetic ties these seemingly disparate tracks together. With the help of producer J. Robbins (Jets to Brazil, Jawbox, Against Me!) the lush melodies and harmonies so unique to the band transform these varied sounds into a coherent and cohesive album, an album whose overall sound and sensibility melds the darkest moments of Modest Mouse's "Good News for People Who Love Bad News" with the maudlin country roots of Western folk rock. The band's thick, fretted, knotty sound provides a through line, tying together an album as musically diverse as the backcountry roads and basement rooms that inspired it.
"In Bocca al Lupo", on Tent Show Records, the band's own label, shows off Murder by Death's maturity, both as songwriters and musicians. The album is alternately rough and gentle, elegant and complex, intelligent and playful; it moves from one to the other without breaking stride, without interrupting the album as whole. Murder by Death is known for their talent as performers, for their live presence, the ambiance and energy present in their music. "In Bocca al Lupo" harnesses this energy and distills it, adding to it the maturity of a band constantly on the road.