Dead Roses: Songs Of A Dark Troubador
~reviewed by Matthew Heilman
Accounts of the Black Plague, murder ballads, medieval court songs, ancient mythology, tales of ghostly maidens and even a forlorn vampiric love song – what more could you want? These and other sundry tales make up the lyrical imagery in the latest compilation of dark folk music by Pittsburgh’s wandering minstrel Chuck ‘Owl Stone’ Owston. All local music scenes have their legends, and Chuck is surely one of the most active and internationally recognized musicians from Pittsburgh. A longtime figure in not only the city’s Goth scene, but he is also a member of the Rockabilly Hall of Fame, a noted supporter and performer of the Blues, a frequent organizer of local folk rock events and has performed at appeared and performed at various Renaissance Festivals over a bazillion times.
Chuck is a prolific musician, having been
playing guitar, mandolin, cittern, and nearly any odd stringed instrument
he can get his hands on for nearly forty years! In addition
to his musical endeavours, he has been the minister of Bryn Mawr Church
of Christ in White Oak, PA for the past twenty years. It may seem
surprising that an active Christian would be drawn to such dark imagery
and avidly support the Goth scene, but when you begin to think about the
amount of macabre Christian imagery that is basically the very backbone
of the music scene, it begins to make more sense. Chuck himself says
of his excellent and brooding take on the traditional English hymn “Down
In The Forest” -“The best Christian hymns should [have] dark, gothic
imagery.” He is an extremely open minded man, with a firm knowledge
of history and mythology, a veritable Renaissance man for the modern age.
His music has attracted the attention of such noted legends as Julianne
Regan of All About Eve, and most recently, David Tibet of Current 93.
Tibet has purchased several of Chuck’s self-released CDs through his Dreaded
Folk record label.
Several female vocalists have helped Chuck along the way. His daughters Stephanie and Mandy Owston contribute to his work on a number of tracks. Stephanie appears on the Jasper Nighthawk material, such as “The Lantern Bearer” which is also known as ‘one of the greatest hits of 1348 a.d.’ according to the disc’s amusing liner notes. Mandy contributes penny whistle to the traditional Scottish ballad “Cruel Sister” and lead vocals on “The Trees Grow High.” Kacey Sherrod joins Chuck for a rousing and driving rendition of the popular murder ballad “Polly Vaughn.” Marie Alexander provides the vocals for the Hypnos tracks, sweetly shining on the classic number “She Moves Through The Fair” and Vonnie Holt delivers an exceptional performance on the track “Carcosa” which is based on a 19th century work called “The King In Yellow” by Robert W. Chambers.
While some songs are admittedly stronger than others, the discs highlights appear with “The Bloody Crow,” a dramatic minor-keyed live favourite which is an ode to Morrigan, the Irish goddess of war, who took the form of a crow and sailed above the battlefields, scouring for prey. “Willy O’ Windsbury” is a moody, bittersweet track characterized by twanging mandolin and Chuck’s most disciplined vocal performance on the whole disc. “Two Ravens” stands out with its layers of mournful vocal chants and a hypnotic drone that ominously haunts the entire track – the song recalls some of Current 93’s middle years on the “Christ & The Pale Queens” and “Crooked Crosses for The Nodding God” albums. And speaking of ‘pale queens,’ Chuck’s original track “Three Pale Queens” which is inspired by the death of King Arthur, is probably my favourite song he has ever done. This version has a strong synthetic drum track and lulling bass line at its heart, with sharply strummed acoustic guitar passages drenched in ghostly reverb. The somber male/vocal duet gives the song an even stronger sense of dark Romanticism that is finalized by an instrumental break of gloomy pipe organ and sinister flutes to enrich the atmosphere. “Dirge” is another of Chuck’s fantastic originals, though it is so steeped in the code of the ancients that it could easily be mistaken as the work of a traditional Renaissance minstrel.
Though not Chuck’s best work, his two tracks “The Darkest of The Angels” and “The Lazarus Man” are noteworthy for their stylistic variations. Both are driving rock-based songs, affectionately in tribute of Fields Of The Nephilim. (Chuck’s nickname at the Goth clubs is fittingly ‘the preacher man’) These tracks fall short primarily for the unconvincing synthetic drum parts, and a slightly muddy sound. But it’s easy to envision how the songs could sound backed by a full live band, which undoubtedly Chuck will get to one of these days. And they illustrate the variety of Chuck’s influences and abilities.
At any rate, Dead Roses is a prime collection of this local musician’s best work. I highly recommended it to readers that have a passion for the Medieval and Renaissance, fans of Lorenna McKennit, Dead Can Dance, and especially those that enjoy the purely folk music of Sol Invictus, Current 93, and Death In June. While not quite at the professional calibre of those aforementioned bands, Chuck’s philosophy is in the spirit of true DIY independent and underground music. The quality of the songs speaks louder than anything else, and the passion behind them is what shines through. The production of this CD varies, but most of it is far above mere demo status. One of Pittsburgh’s most prized exports, it’s definitely worth checking out – David Tibet thought so!
Track List: (Band in parenthesis)
Chuck Owston – Official information: