Friday, 13 April 2018

Album Review: Aphorisms by Tragical History Tour (by Emma Prew)

Aphorisms is the debut album from Scottish cow punk Tragical History Tour. That’s actually quite an odd thing to say since Derrick Johnston, the man behind THT, has been making music for some 15 years. So to say that his debut album is a little overdue would be somewhat of an understatement. We’re big fans of Tragical History Tour over here at CPRW with both Dan and Colin having reviewed his releases recently. Now the task of reviewing the much awaited Aphorisms has fallen to me – no pressure!

Aphorisms opens with Fight For Light. This song kicks things off with some clean-sounding acoustic guitar played at a reasonably fast pace. The first lyric of the song is distinctly appropriate for an album opener – ‘I don’t know where to start…’. I love small details like that. Fight For Light has a very much country meets bluesy feel with Derrick’s distinct gruff vocals adding another layer to the overall sound. Speaking of layers, a second guitar adds an additional melody while the first guitar remains more rhythmic – this is more than just a man-with-acoustic-guitar song. The standout moment for me, however, has to be the big singalong chorus of ‘When I never had a home, You were my place to go…’ which actually reminded me a bit of Hot Water Music. What a great start! Next up is Come On Home, Hero. Now this is a song that has been previously released (and I know Dan reviewed it at some point last year) but it must have passed me by as this was my first time hearing the song. Come On Home, Hero begins with a slow first verse, complete with super gravelly vocals, soft acoustic guitar and percussion. However, by the second verse the pace has pleasantly picked up and things suddenly turn into a more full band affair. This is a protest song of sorts that not only looks at angry Brexiters but also the human race as a whole and how we’ve done a pretty good job of making a mess of things. Two thirds of the way through the song there’s a big electric guitar solo – Tragical History Tour is certainly not so acoustic punk anymore. The entire song is packed with great lyricism but it has to be the bridge that really shine above all else: ‘When there's nowhere left to run, We can't undo all the damage we've done, As a human race, at times we've been great, but mostly we've been a disgrace.’

The third song is titled Old Words. This is a quiet and sad acoustic track that I recognise from the CPRW tracks of 2017 playlist – I believe Colin reviewed the EP of the same name. Derrick’s voice is particularly raspy for this song which sets a dark tone. One of the great things about the more stripped back Tragical History Tour style is how those vocals contrast so wonderfully with the warmer guitar tones, whether they be finger-picked melodies or strummed chords. Old Words is a nostalgic and regretful song full of emotion. It turns out that this isn’t a purely acoustic track after all as there is in fact a big electric guitar outro – more great contrasts! Three Two is the the fourth song on Aphorisms. This is fast paced, lively acoustic folk punk that has previously been released as a Uniforms song. You’d have thought this was an American folk punk artist, Cory Branan for instance, especially with the California and Colorado Springs reference… well, aside from the strong Scottish accent that is. This is a fairly simple but effective song about being on the road. There’s a feeling of positivity to the whole thing and I love it – ‘If I make it through the day, I swear to you I will change my ways, All I need is to hear you say, “You’re not alone”, Give me strength now to be strong, And together we can conquer anything.’  Around the two minute mark there is a short spoken word moment where Derrick speaks about the difficulties of talking about his feelings. Further repetition of that chorus plays out the song with the addition of more than one vocalist – or is it just multiple layers of Derrick vocals? Either way, this is one of the standout tracks on the album.

What Would Vinnie Mac Do? is a semi-old song that appeared on the 2014–2016 collected recordings. The song is similar to Old Words in that the acoustic guitar is warm while the vocals are more harsh. This is also another fairly sombre song but there’s nothing wrong with that, I think the most touching and thought-provoking songs are the sad ones. What Would Vinnie Mac Do? is about feeling like you have no place to call home – ‘Sometimes home is more lonely than the road.’ – feeling lost and, maybe just a little bit, lonely. There’s no doubt that this is a song full of emotion but there’s also a sense of hopefulness towards the end of the song. This is reflected in Derrick’s shift in vocal style – it sounds sort of brighter – as well as in the words themselves. ‘We can drive forever, Better now than never, Maybe someday we’ll find home.’ Like with Three Two, this next song, Pink Couch, is a stripped back version of a Uniforms song. If you’re not familiar with the original however, like I wasn’t until Colin told me, then you wouldn’t think this song sounds at all out of place on Aphorisms. I can’t emphasise enough just how great a lyricist Derrick Johnston is but, if you listen to this song, I hope you’ll agree that he has a brilliant storytelling ability. (The start of the second verse for instance: ‘Trace your steps back to the start, Learn again and fall apart, There’s nothing left to fear…’) His voice sounds more mellow here, rather than the characteristic gruffness that we are perhaps used to, with this rendition of Pink Couch having more of an acoustic pop punk sound over the rawer folk punk. The song ends with a stomp-along percussive last chorus which is similar to the original but retains the stripped back style well. Great stuff.

It’s Cool, I’ve Got This is the seventh song on Aphorisms. The song opens with a lovely, gentle finger-picked acoustic guitar intro before the vocals begin. The gentle guitar playing continues throughout and offers another great contrast in sound as those harsher, gruff vocals are back here. It’s Cool, I’ve Got This is a bit of a melancholic song with a positive twist. The lyrics speak of knowing that whatever life throws at you, you’ll be able to take it, no matter how difficult things might seem – you can do it. ‘And it breaks my heart to believe it, And it burns my lungs to breathe in, Shatters my voice to scream it, But I’ve got this.’ Up next is a song called My Little Ray Of Sunshine. This track takes a turn in a slightly different musical direction, it has a kind of jazzy, bluesy feel to its mid-tempo melody – I think there might even be some keys in this song’s intro. The percussion is sure to get heads nodding along too. Despite all of these sunshiney, happy sounds – not to mention the title of the song itself – the vocals feel almost grungey and angsty. My Little Ray Of Sunshine is a song about someone who seemingly has it all figured out and lives a perfect life – while you don’t. There’s another big electric guitar outro, complete with those aforementioned keys, giving My Little Ray Of Sunshine a very much Americana feel. I wasn’t expecting so much variety in sub-genres from this album if I’m completely honest!

No Advice is the name of the penultimate song and it begins with dual acoustic guitars playing a slow and melodic yet atmospheric introduction. The opening lines set a sombre mood – ‘I’ve got no advice, No quick fixes for you.’  – in Derrick’s classic gravel-infused tones. No Advice is about admitting that you are not able to solve someone’s problems, nor your own, but you will be there for that someone when they need you anyway – you are never alone. This is another tune that is packed full of emotion and it reminds a fair bit of City And Colour. You know, if Dallas Green was a whiskey drinking Scotsman. ‘Given time scars will fade, But they will never wash away…’ The aptly titled tenth and final song of Aphorisms is Final Intervention. Featuring quiet warm-sounding strummed acoustic guitar chords for the first twenty seconds of so, the volume slowly increases as the vocals come in. Those keys from My Little Ray Of Sunshine join the mix after the first verse and, once again, the warm and soft sounding instruments contrast well with the rougher vocals. Similar to earlier tracks, this song takes a look at some of the things that are wrong with the world and this country. ‘It’ll take more than protest songs, To explain all that’s gone wrong.’ / ‘If we can’t even save ourselves, There’s no hope for anything else.’ This last song is by far the longest on the album at over 6 minutes long but it feels entirely appropriate. I almost expected it to crescendo to having a full blown orchestrated finale. It doesn’t quite have that but it’s still pretty darn impressive all the same. In fact the end of the song has a spoken word section, which is a really lovely and humbling, complete with a final set of whoa-ohs. ‘If you don’t understand without an explanation, You’ll never understand.’ So just check it our yourself, please.

Aphorisms is released on 20th April on Make That A Take (of course), as well as Aaahh!! Real Records and Team Beard Records. The vinyl release is going to be a pick ’n’ mix of various colour options, so you won’t know what to expect – pretty cool!

You can find pre-order details here and check out Tragical History Tour on Bandcamp and Facebook.

This review was written by Emma Prew.