Murder By Death – In Bocca al Lupo

Murder By Death
In Bocca al Lupo

At first glance, In Bocca al Lupo ( “In the Mouth of the Wolf”) has all the makings of a death-metal release: nihilistic band name; cover art depicting a tree whose roots extend into Hell amid flames, a collection of skulls and flying devils; equally creepy, although expertly done and intricately detailed, booklet art; and song titles like “Dead Men and Sinners,” “Sometimes the Line Walks You,” and “The Devil Drives/” But one spin of In Bocca al Lupo dispels any notion of death metal. Instead, what comes blasting from the speakers is something that could pass for Stan Ridgway fronting Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds.

But this is not Stan Ridgway fronting Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds. This is Murder By Death with Adam Turla on guitar and vocals, Sarah Balliet on cello and keyboards, Matt Armstrong on bass, and Alex Schrodt on drums and percussion. And while their music may lurk in the shadows of NCATBS, Murder By Death emerges with a concoction of Americana blues, gothic post-rock, western folk, and gritty indie rock that these artists can call their own.

It’s no surprise, coming from a band that takes its name from a 1976 Robert Moore novel, that each song unfolds as a tragic short story whose eccentric characters are brought to life with Turla’s passionate crooning. He belts out the sordid fables with the same emotional intensity as Nick Cave but with the tone and drawl of Stan Ridgway. The diverse music is played with equal fervor, as the band’s artistic hybrid of rock is an ideal fit for these twisted tales.

There aren’t many bands that can carve their way through such a dense musical pallette with such conviction and dexterity, but In Bocca al Lupo shows Murder By Death strutting its stuff in a variety of styles from turbulent to delicate. Highlights include the drunken sailor pub song “Dead Men and Sinners” that sounds so authentic you’ll think it really was recorded in a pub with drunken sailors; the blazing indie-rock beats of “Brother”; and “Sometimes the Line Walks You” with some hard-driving bass lines that rivals “Let Love In”-era Nick Cave. The sound is tempered a bit towards the end of the disc, as Turla gives Johhny Cash a run for his money on the mostly acoustic “Shiola,” and the band even flirts with a bit of gospel on closer “The Devil Drives.” Balliet adds the perfect compliment to each song with an infusion of keyboard washes and assorted cello techniques. Whether deep pounding staccato to add grit, expressive bowing to provide a touch of melancholy, or ethereal glissandi, it is all sublime, smoothing over the rough-edged rock and giving Murder By Death a leg up on others in the genre.

It takes guts to play music in a genre that includes clever, oddball eccentrics like Stan Ridgway and rock icons such as Johnny Cash and Nick Cave. But it takes talent and conviction to emerge from their shadows with a distinctive album, and In Bocca al Lupo proves that Murder By Death has all three.