Some albums take a split second in order to showcase both their greatness and best qualities while others take more time and require more listening in order to reveal their treasures. While singer Robert Plant's album Carry Fire
is tremendous on first listen and shows great depth and richness, it also reveals an even richer experience with other subsequent listens. As a lifelong voyager and curious explorer, his sophomore release on Nonesuch Records, Carry Fire
continues his focus on creating a mélange of various strands of music i.e. it is a record that draws together nearly all of the man's accrued vernacular with seeming effortlessness and as a result it reveals a restless and potent creative spirit that makes music which is relevant and full of life and vigor. Much like his previous record, lullaby...and the Ceaseless Roar
which featured some of Plant's best writing of his entire solo career, so is Carry Fire
is a masterclass in songwriting by a songwriting master.
Robert Plant's music both with Led Zeppelin and post was characterized by diversity, experimentation, taking chances and often good fun. But in the last three decades, creating music without borders became Plant's specialty. From record to record, it was evident that his core desire was to seamlessly weave rock, blues, British folk music or Americana with different strands of Indian and North and Western African influences into a unique amalgam that is uniquely his own. Reflecting the kaleidoscopic multi-faceted music that was created by '60s psychedelic bands that have greatly inspired his understanding of music and its possibilities, Plant has formed challenging bands that mixed and matched voices in ways that fostered cultural cross-pollination and dressed up his strong compositions. This has created pathways towards collaborating with an interesting cast of musicians over the years with the Sensational Space Shifters being the last in that lineage. As a collective, the Shape Shifters are the perfect storm where the confluence of various elements were combined in ways that enhanced the sound and emphasized this collective's openness. And as a result, the band remains defiantly and enigmatically uncategorizable.
Traversing various ethnic musical traditions can be risky business, but Plant has found strong and workable paths to expressive synergy though collective interplay in his music, a characteristic of his previous band Led Zeppelin. It can be argued that Plant's nomadic approach to music is borne out of a personal vision that involves no boundaries between musics. This perspective can be heard and experienced across his many solo albums and collaborations eventually culminating on lullaby...and Ceaseless Roar.
By marrying these strands of music Plant and his band have managed to remain playful without falling into predictable patterns. One of the highest praises that can be paid both to lullaby
and Carry Fire
is that regardless of what direction he turns in, Plant never loses his way. Still, each of this album's eleven songs is unique unto itself, yet all flow together into a cohesive set. While this record builds on the genre-blurring foundation that was evident more on the previous record where all of these sounds and influences were evidently push to the fore, it also contrasts it, as Carry Fire's
varied elements and rich confluences are more subdued and neatly interwoven within the delicate fabric of the songs.
This is evident from the first single that was released "The May Queen" which is infused with kinetic, playful energy and propulsive rhythms. The song is based on a playful bluesy guitar riff that is propelled by hand-drums which all together encapsulate the playful vibe of the collective work in a singular track. Plant's voice has settled into a warm, expressive mid-range, yet it's still powerful, impressive and driving. The band of this caliber is more than capable of stirring up wild grooves, but on this song, the Shifters respond sensitively to Plant's vocal lines and are conjuring varying dynamics within the song. "New World.." is a straight rocker where guitarist Justin Adams emulates Jimmy Page's melodic riffing. The song irresistibly evokes the harmonies of Plant's joint effort with Page on Walking into Clarksdale,
but it soon turns into something else. It's the only straight ahead rocker on the album. Lyrically, the song tells stories of immigrants and the lyrics paint a picture of these people's ordeals.
"Season's Song" is a beautiful and poignant love ballad where from the ethereal guitar and emotive vocal lines, Plant and his band have constructed involving waves of melodies where each new layer adds elements of movement and harmonic depth until the song becomes almost overwhelming. There is an almost fragile quality to his vocals and a sense of sweet introversion rather than demonstrative proclamation. A similar ethereal ambiance informs "Dance with You Tonight" which carries this feeling as well. Built on various beats and drum sounds, "Dance with You Tonight" is a playful love song where the guitar creates easy ethereal waves that soar to a symphonic swell with layers and layers of instruments and voices. Plant's soulful vocals are carefully interwoven into this distinctive sound world of tribal beats. "Carving Up the World Again...a world and not a fence" speaks of a world revolving in fear. The title was taken from a quote about Trump's plan to build a wall and the debate about "When is a wall not a wall? When it's a fence" but it also reflects on a world that it entrenches itself with walls and fear. It's the dramatic flair to the vocals that makes this song entrancing. Justin Adams' otherworldly guitar casts a mysterious spell all throughout this song as it surges, echoes and resonates while driven by raw and punchy hypnotic tribal beats.
Among the most powerful moments, if not the most powerful moment, is the title track itself. "Carry Fire" carries strong Middle Eastern melodies that are played masterfully on the oud as they intertwine with a viola in the background as the song is driven by intricate but playful percussion. There is a fluid relationship between the freedom of the oud and the playful percussion and lays the perfect foundation for Plant's husky voice. Just as the varying cultural threads intertwine, all of the musicians offer their own individual input towards a collective end.
The world music elements may not be that evident or put strongly at the forefront. Sometimes a phrase or embellishment here and there would reveal these leaning as on "Keep it Hid" where beyond the bluesy guitar chords and the futuristic synth sounds that float on the plethora of African percussion and modern-day beats reveal subtle desert blues guitar licks that mold to something almost menacing. The collective channels different and often retro sources through a contemporary, electro sensibility to create an amalgamation with a style that is all their own. While this record is devoid of any references to Led Zeppelin trademarks, the opening riff of "Bones of Saints" does reference Page's "Going to California"styled riffology. "Bones of Saints" is an upbeat rock song where Plant delivers his most dynamic vocal performance of the album over the brilliantly layered and irresistible thumping desert blues mannered heavy percussive extravaganza with echoey desert blues guitar licks beneath it.
"Bluebirds over the Mountains" is the only cover song on this record (written by Ersel Hickey) and it's a duet with Chrissie Hynde of the Pretenders. The song is unlike the original and this doesn't resemble at all the saccharine-like duet with Alisson Kraus. It's a playful song full of charges of guitars that set in an atmosphere of deep emotion and mystery, supported by visceral bass playing and a plethora of thumping drum work and a country violin.The song has that heaviness and dirty tonality that are characteristic of bands such as Tinariwen or Tamikrest. The album closes with "Heaven Sent," a song draped by bleary instrumental textures which give the song a cinematic feel to it. This meshing and layering of different elements contribute to the creation of an eclectic landscape that at times sounds completely divorced from geography. Carry Fire
is an excellent record that both lyrically and musically reveals a world in state of flux. It offers various perspectives from the personal on the state of humanity to the macro. It reflects the boiling turmoil, the plight of refugees, the hypocritical mindsets that inform the current fundamentalism on all levels and the ongoing decline in ethics that societies are experiencing. On this record we are witnessing a collision of two worldsthe first is the world that wants to connect and communicate on a normal human level and that flow and confluences are reflected in the music's kaleidoscopic nature. The other is the dark side, the shadow world of xenophobia and where walls and fences are built. It's a world where enormous portions of the populations are turning inward rather than trying to understand each other.
On the other hand, this is not a world music record but it is inspired by various traditions and geographies. Plant and his fellow musicians are no tourists nor are pursuing the exotica feel to their songs. The very core of this music stands in contrast with many musicians of today who have grown up in the internet age where the musical choices and tastes have become less cross-pollinated and more Spotify influenced. At the heart of it, there is an enchanting and enjoyable cross-genre intercontinental exploration. This collective is nearly boundless in its ability to approach, stretch, and reinvent song forms with great taste and tenderness. The end result is songs that feel new and wonderful, songs that are filled with subtle nuances and slight gestures, and it is precisely these qualities that make it worth going back to time and time again. With Carry Fire,
Robert Plant again proves himself to be among the most sonically adventurous elder statesmen in rock music. The album is a proof positive that Plant isn't simply still here, but that he's kicking with gusto.
Track Listing: The May Queen; New World; Season's Song; Dance with You Tonight; Carving up
the World Again... A Wall and Not a Fence; A Way with Words; Carry Fire; Bones
of Saints; Keep It Hid; Bluebirds over the Mountain" (feat. Chrissie Hynde
(duet); Heaven Sent.
Personnel: Robert Plant: vocals, production; Justin Adams: bendirs, djembe, guitars,
tehardant, background vocals; Liam "Skin" Tyson: banjo, guitar, background
vocals; John Baggott: keyboards, loops, moog bass, piano, tabal, background
vocals; Juldeh Camara: kologo, ritti, Fulani vocals; Billy Fuller: bass, drum
programming, omnichord, upright bass; Dave Smith: drum set.
Title: Carry Fire
| Year Released: 2017
| Record Label: Nonesuch Records