Review: Alvarius B/Cerberus Shoal – The Vim and Vigour of Alvarius B and Cerberus Shoal

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Originally published in Delusions of Adequacy March 3, 2003

Let it be read into the record: “Ding,” the 18-minute acoustic epic with which Cerberus Shoal closes their most recent split release on North East Indie, is alone worth the cost of picking up the CD.

No. Scratch that. One minute alone of Cerberus Shoal’s “Ding” is worth the cost of picking up the CD.

A sprawling composition that methodically and organically expands within its own musical borders, “Ding” highlights the finest elements of Cerberus Shoal: the careful attention to strange but emotional acoustic measures, the overlapping harmonies of a chorus of sometimes human and sometimes angelic voices, the interjections of found sounds and percussion. The only thing to match the precision and performance of the song itself may be the images called to mind by the band’s lyrics. A confounding and unique stream of consciousness, the lyrics to “Ding” evoke, among other things, the dream language of Neutral Milk Hotel’s Jeff Mangum.

Mangum, however, never took the surrealism and absurdity of his sentiments quite this far. Case in point: “Come rest your tooth upon my slow veins, we’ll drink newt urine slingshotting candles into the firmament, our destiny digging holes in the ground beneath and ankle deep our hearts will sink to test the sugar of our sleep.”

The song isn’t all peculiar observations and oddball asides. At one point, the voices converge to sing about a truth familiar to many independent musicians: “O! Holy Countenance, help me fry an egg. Your omnipotent machinations can’t fit in our stomachs and I fear starvation will be your only answer to our prayers. Or perhaps we are praying for hunger to deliver us from comfort. To lead us into the stone bed of our passions.” Well, it’s clear this isn’t kid stuff. It’s a shame that the rest of the record doesn’t seem to always resonant as clearly as this epic reflection.

Alvarius B — a.k.a. Alan Bishop — tries his hand at “Ding,” but he seems to turn the magic of the song into a kind of half-hearted joke. The vocals of Cerberus Shoal’s “Ding” keep the song moving until the solo acoustic guitar is supplemented by an ever-growing orchestra that includes mouth harp, drums, electronics, and what sounds like xylophone and organ. Alvarius B’s “Ding” is — despite the appearance of various swells and noises — a solo affair. Instead of paring down the song to its basics and going from there, however, Alvarius B seems to suck the vitality out of it. Instead of a chorus of voices and subtle instrumentation, we get an occasionally disappearing acoustic guitar and vocals that often sound like a bad impersonation of Frank Zappa’s sinister narration for Joe’s Garage.

The other Alvarius B songs — pieces for acoustic guitar and voice that seem to dwell and linger on images of butchering people — are slightly stronger. Moving between the intriguing and the strained, the songs are laced with dark imagery and near-rhymes that try to shake the listener’s expectations of what a man with an acoustic guitar might have to sing about. In short, the songs hold together better than his take on “Ding,” but they also don’t really come to life until Cerberus Shoal get their hands on them.

In a sign of how lop-sided the release is, Cerberus Shoal re-invent the work in ways that reveal how rough and incomplete the original versions are. They craft “Blood Baby” as a sort of drunken carnival waltz, taking Alvarius B’s guitar and imagining it as a child lost in a shadowy, nightmare circus somewhere in Eastern Europe. The end result is closer to the organic jazz leanings of Tin Hat Trio than the dissonant refrains of Mr. Alan Bishop.

The themes — as well as the sounds — in “Viking Christmas” are also turned well on their ears when run through by Cerberus Shoal. Instead of Alvarius B’s version — an intimate and personal first-person narrative with acoustic guitar — Cerberus Shoal transform the piece into a highly communal event. In turn, the serial killer ruminations get the volume cranked up in the public square. The song’s original structure is almost nonexistent the second time around, and Cerberus Shoal cuts cleverly, but without fanfare, between a cappella renditions of the song recorded in populated places such as — oddly enough — an Episcopal church in Kennebunkport, Maine.

All in all, the release is an interesting way of illustrating how two different bands and artists will both interpret and reinvent each other’s work. While Alvarius B may not hit the bulls-eye all the time, he provides an interesting and atmospheric foundation on which both he and Cerberus Shoal build some well-crafted soundscapes.

As for Cerberus Shoal, “Ding” may say it all. Here’s to hoping their contribution to the next split release in their ongoing series is as magical and engaging as the vim and the vigour that they exhibit here.

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