Review: The Black Heart Procession – “Hearts and Tanks”

There has been a significant amount of response from musicians regarding the war in Iraq, but few of those responses may be as vague or indirect as the latest offering from The Black Heart Procession, a four-song EP quietly released in the UK.

I say it may be a vague statement because it’s unclear if the songs contained herein are about a war or “the war,” per se, or just about conflict that could be paralleled with military action. The EP’s cover — a morbid canvas painted with child-like depictions of a screaming face, entrails, and a passing tank — is about the only thing that hints at the theme of military action. The songs offer us few precious clues. Even their titles — “Radio,” “The News,” “Weakness,” and “Following,” one is led to believe by the ambiguous back cover — provide us little in the way of context.

Well, so much for the political critique.

Musically, the record is typical of what The Black Heart Procession has done between its larger outings, and it fits nicely next to works such as the band’s three-song EP for Up Records and Fish the Holes on Frozen Lakes, released by Galaxia. The tracks on Hearts and Tanks are not epic, the group’s best work or the first step in a new musical or thematic direction. But they do provide an interesting intermission between the recently released Amore del Tropico and the band’s fifth full-length, whenever it hits the streets.

The largely instrumental disc begins with “Radio,” an ominous introduction whose structure — it’s a reworking of “The Visitor,” from Amore del Tropico — seems to reveal, after multiple listenings, that it could be the beginning of a four-track song cycle. Far from the more exotic experiments of Amore del Tropico, however, “Radio” is a toned-down rumination, a song that plods along with swelling electronics, a repeating drum beat, and subtle, off-tempo electric guitars. The most instrumental song on the EP, “Radio” is essentially a broken loop, a glimpse of the tone the record seems to be setting.

Next up is “The News,” which pulls the listener further into the fray with a pitch-perfect hip-hop drum pattern and repeating guitar, bass, and piano measures. Over the entire song — which, again, loops the listener into a kind of lulled submission — is a sampled female voice that we can never quite hear. What she’s saying is muffled by how her vocals were recorded — over a phone line? — as well as by the music that surrounds it. At times, it sounds like she’s speaking in Spanish and, at other moments, it resembles Hebrew or Arabic.

After a few minutes of listening, it becomes no clearer what she’s talking about — we hear her say “America” only in the closing moments of the track — or why she’s talking at all. As a larger statement about the strange means of conveying global conflict, it works but, as a purely musical endeavor, it lingers for longer than its loops seem to allow.

Following “The News” is “Weakness,” whose title perfectly reflects its tone and direction. Grounded by a repeating guitar line that would do Bill Callahan proud, the real focus of the song is its vocals, which jump out on a record dominated by instrumental loops. While vocalist and guitarist Pall Jenkins/Paulo Zappoli repeatedly sings “These things won’t change,” there are multi-tracked versions of himself moaning different phrases and lines all over themselves, amid the somber repeating guitars and the weeping of what may or may not be an e-bow. If you’re in the right frame of mind — and storm clouds are not optional here — the song has a broken and elegiac quality to it but, if you’re waiting for the band to break out of its gray repetitions, you’ll be waiting for a while.

Only the record’s closing track — the dark, carnivalesque ballad “Following” — hints at the fact that an entire band is being captured on the disc. Here, spare drum measures accompany piano, the band’s trademark musical saw, vocals and tambourine as Jenkins/Zappoli sings, sounding as if he were being recorded in an empty cavern.

The most definitive moment of the EP may come, however, right at the beginning of “Following.” There, after the gloom of the three preceding tracks has settled, someone — maybe it’s Jenkins/Zappoli, maybe it’s not — blurts out, “It’s recording, you can play it. It’s recording.” While leaving the comment in makes the listener feel as if they’re sitting right next to the Procession as they work their way through the material, it also serves to illustrate how much of a work-in-passing this may be. For completists and long-time fans of the band, it’s worth hunting down but for those seeking an introduction, Amore del Tropico and Three still fare much, much better.

After ingesting the nearly 20 minutes the disc has to offer, though, one is still left with the questions: Is the EP some sort of statement on the conflicts one hears about every day on the news? Or is our heightened sensitivity to military action merely being tapped by the Procession to illustrate the pains of the battles that we face every day? – Delusions of Adequacy, Sept. 15, 2003

About the author

Justin Vellucci is a staff writer for PopMatters, Spectrum Culture, and MusicTAP, a contributor to Pittsburgh Current, and a former staffer for Popdose, Punk Planet and Delusions of Adequacy. His music writing has appeared in national magazines such as American Songwriter, alt-pubs like The Brooklyn Rail, Pittsburgh CityPaper and San Diego CityBeat, blogs Swordfish, Punksburgh and Linoleum, and the Gannett magazine Jetty. He lives in Pittsburgh.