There is something about American folk music, bluegrass, spirituals, and country that fascinates me despite my obvious allegiance to metal. There’s a sort of darkness that exists within that strain of music that few people are aware of, it’s a darkness that I find immeasurably beautiful. Normally, I dislike country, in fact I’ll lay a blanket of abhorrence over all of that genre that has separated itself from the folk music beginnings. There are still bands out there that call themselves “Death Country” or “Gothic Bluegrass.” While my research has really just begun with this trip down the rabbit hole, I have managed to find a few artists that I really like. Everyone likes Johnny Cash, if you don’t then you’re entitled to your wrong opinion, and I’ve found a new sort of appreciation for his doomy work. Searching for artists like him, I found Karl S Williams, an Australian guy who has a better grasp of American folk than I think most Americans do. This year he released a two song EP on bandcamp that has what might be my favorite song of all time, and coincidently the name of the album “O Death.”
I fell in love with the song when I first heard a rendition of the old classic on Supernatural about six or seven years ago now. O Death is an old song, with a lot of history that goes back to the Appalachian musician and preacher Lloyd Chandler from the 1920s. But this isn’t the history of the song, though it is a fascinating history I urge everyone to research. Karl S Williams does an acapella version of the song and barring anything that comes out after this review, I think it’s the best damn rendition I have ever heard.
The acoustics of the song are great, giving just enough atmosphere to Williams’ vocals so they don’t sound claustrophobic but not so rich that it takes away from his power, and his voice has a lot of understated power in it. I’m not usually good at judging vocals that aren’t metal vocals but having heard this song over and over and over thorugh the years I think I’m qualified enough to make a judgement. Williams’ vocals fall somewhere close to a baritone, in my estimation at least (and I’m not the most reputable source for that) which works for the song because the vocals are that of a young man, not an older man who has seen death before nor a young boy who has no idea what death really is. O Death is a conversation with death so the “age” of the vocals is important, they need to sound sure of themselves yet afraid and, despite that oxymoron, Williams’ vocals are able to pull that off. They have enough twinge on the end of his words to add a flippant attitude that I really enjoyed.
The next song is “O Come O Come Emmanuel,” and Williams introduces some very solid piano work. Again the acoustics give us an atmospheric but intimate feel, almost like we’re at the front row of a concerto. Williams really understands the emotional approach to spiritual songs. Neither of the songs are approached with a sort of casual reverence you find in a lot of gospel music, these are not the renditions of a man who finds himself in the pews every Sunday. Given that different perspective, I think the songs hold a deeper meaning, or maybe they just sound really nice, who am I to judge.
Either way a nonreligious approach to spiritual songs offers a unique insight into the songs themselves. Without the reverence for the words and their meanings the singer, and by extension the audience, can focus more on the meaning of the words themselves and how they correlate to each other. A listener can hear the conversation in O Death taking place between death and the young man as a philosophical debate rather than a selfish plea for more life. O Come O Come Emmanuel becomes a song of hopeful reprieve rather than just a melancholic Christmas song. Perspective matters.
I loved the album, even though it was only two songs long and it might take you longer to read this review that to listen to the songs themselves they are worth it. Old American folk songs have a mysterious quality about them, an enigmatic atmosphere. Karl S Williams nails that atmosphere and then some.
Listen and support!