Black Fortress of Opium – Truth in Advertising

by delarue

Black Fortress of Opium: an apt name for a band whose appeal is sometimes narcotic and often violent. It’s not known if the Boston art-rock crew is aware of legendary Australian psychedelic rockers the Church, but their new album Stratospherical (streaming at their Bandcamp site) is in many respects a dead ringer for that group at their peak. With its layers of guitars, Black Fortress of Opium’s scorching 2008 debut album makes a good counterpart to the Church’s 1981 debut Of Skins and Heart. Likewise, just as their Aussie predecessors switched to a more ornate style, Black Fortress of Opium have expanded their sonics into a ringing, richly chiming, swirling, shimmering, lushly arranged web. So this album, their second, is sort of their Gold Afternoon Fix…except with vocals by a darkly charismatic frontwoman. Multi-instrumentalist Ajda the Turkish Queen sings in a penetrating, moody soprano that’s sometimes ethereal, sometimes breathy, often plaintive or menacing, depending on the lyrics. Her acoustic guitars, mandolin, tenor banjo and keys mingle with lead guitarist Tony Savarino’s layers of jangle, clang and roar for an orchestral majesty that’s all too seldom seen in rock music these days. Bass is just as important to the melody as to the pulse here, with Dave Yanolis, Joel Simches and Rich Cortese all contributing on four-string along with Dresden Dolls’ Brian Viglione and Joe Turner handling the drums. Is the best rock record of 2012 so far? It’s one of them.

It’s hard to pick one song over another here. Afyonkarahisar Battle Cry – which is basically the title track – builds from rhythmic suspense to an intense, pulsing chorus with swirling dreampop vocal harmonies and ringing, Middle Eastern-tinged guitar hooks, a shout-out to the capitol city of a centuries-old, wartorn Turkish opium province. Likewise, Blind begins a-cappella and grows to a dreamy, majestic menace lit up by Ajda’s spiky mandolin. It could be a requiem for a relationship, or for an entire generation, “The blind children misleading the blind.” Fata Morgana reflects on the fall of the Berlin Wall and the assassination of John Lennon over a swaying, hypnotic backdrop, lush harmonies contrasting with elegantly incisive acoustic guitar and bass as it winds out at the end. Regret and Rue, a similarly hypnotic, understatedly plaintive account of “deprivation and degradation” has a deliciously artful crescendo and a surprise sitar-guitar interlude, ending in a shower of sparks from the amps and a final death salvo from the drums. And Southern Hymnal, a blend of noir cabaret and southwestern gothic, is absolutely gorgeous, from its stately classical guitar intro, through Savarino’s chilling late-night desert baritone guitar solo, and the most album’s most evocative lyric:

Three sheets to the wind in Copenhagen
And I swear there were ghosts in the room…
You hold my hand like some kind of bible
You never really believed
You say my name like some kind of prayer
You only half-remember
You say you love me like some southern hymnal
You can’t find the pages…

The sad, elegaic ballad Unraveling leaves a mark in just under three minutes with pensive layers of accordion and mournful slide guitar, while Get the Timing develops from meandering, bucolic atmospherics to an ambience that manages to be simultaneously hopeful and hopeless. There are also a couple of crunchy, metal-ish numbers, the sarcastic Blood Diamond and Cherry Blossom, a turbocharged, apprehensive powerpop hit. There’s also a straight-up pop song, Right Around Here, the bitterness of the lyric (“I know I’m getting cheated…and I’m ok with that”) contrasting with the bright, shimmering energy of the layers of guitars. The album winds up with This Dark Cloud, a staggering vamp packed with snarling guitar textures which probably makes for great live jams.

In case you’re wondering, Black Fortress of Opium take their name from a small city in Turkey, Afyonkarahisar, which has been a major center of opium production for centuries. The official story these days is that the opium grown in the surrounding fields is for medical use. Overlooking the city is a fort perched on a gigantic rock formation, which gave the city a strategic importance for centuries, as batallion after batallion of marauding invaders took turns occupying it. At least the townspeople had opium to ease the pain of the war years.