by David Haynes (@shooshlord)
As I’ve been listening to the latest offering from Baltimore’s Brendon Massei, the man behind the curtain of Viking Moses, I’ve been struck by how much it defies categorization. At one moment, it sounds like an almost cinematic interpretation of 70s folk rock. The next, there’s a drum machine and Massei almost rapping. Still next, there’s Red House Painters-esque indie rock. Here at the end of the century, albums like Cruel Child adequately reflect the fatigue of our generation. Yet, there’s a hope and energy behind these songs that are ultimately not as cynical as they would perhaps have you believe.
I have never listened to any of Viking Moses’ previous records. So, this review will not involve any sort of comparison to Massei’s previous work. It’s just a deep dive into the weird, mournful world of Cruel Child.
The album’s title track and opener is a masterpiece of bizarre pop songwriting. The very first sound we hear on the record is Massei’s voice. He sings, “I’m a cruel child for reminding my poor mother of my father every time she sees my face.” With some very clean electric guitar and sustained organ chords shimmering in the background, Massei lets us know that we are in for a ride. I’m genuinely amazed by songwriters who can create such sparse mixes yet squeeze emotion into almost every corner of the song. The backing vocals singing “oohs” around Massei’s desperate yet melodic wailing. He has struck gold in this album opener, confirming his status as one of the most interesting songwriters in independent music today.
If you thought you knew where this record was going after listening to the first song, Massei has got a big surprise for you. “Fool For The Flame” is a combination folk song, funeral dirge, and lo-fi hip hop track. The last thing I expected was to hear in song two was a drum machine, and yet, Massei blends it into the sonic palette of this record almost effortlessly. “Fool For the Flame” seems to be about a love lost. He says, “I stay on my game. I call for the light. She took on my brain!” The incorrect tenses of the verbs in this song shows the narrator’s desperation. By now, we realize that Massei could squeeze emotion out of a song if he had written it on a recorder. “Fool For The Flame” is the work of a brilliant, experienced songwriter.
“Pretty Little Eyes” has the sway and the deep-tuned guitar feel of Mark Kozalek’s unique breed of songwriting, but not without it’s own Massei spin. While the instrumentation often changes on this record, his despair imbues every song and keeps this record sounding cohesive. Over the electric guitar and drum backbone, little acoustic guitar leads float around and create this gorgeous texture. Once again, Massei’s howling tenor take the center stage. In the middle of the song, he records the following conversation: “Ask me, ‘What will we become?’ Well, we'll become the law, the reborn rite of spring, the feat of human nature, the fate of human beings!” This almost sounds like something lifted from Leaves of Grass, and Massei’s delivery sounds almost triumphant. “Pretty Little Eyes” is a favorite of mine from this record, if solely for the lines listed above.
There are moments on this record that are also overwhelmingly spiritual. Massei sometimes writes as if he’s concocting his own humanist hymns. “Let This Trouble Pass” is about finding comfort in the company of perhaps a new lover or a dear friend. In a pleading tone, he sings, “We can chase the day in circles going nowhere / as gorgeous as two playing children that we’ll never have / as endless as your sorrow longing for some heart’s regress / Just stay with me and let your trouble pass.” It’s a longing for an idyllic world, which is perhaps the one thing keeping most people in the U.S. sane in 2019.
“In Servitude” broods like an ocean before a storm. The song builds in intensity until the crescendo is almost too strong. Massei’s moaning voice, drenched in reverb, is at its most powerful and chaotic here. The music is simple, but not without its subtle brilliance. The organ is a constant pad throughout this song, and its whirly tones provide the solemnity needed for his spiritual, stark lyrics. The next song, “Headstrong,” is a perfect example of self control. The song feels like it might burst into something bigger at any moment, but Massei and Co. reign in those impulses. It’s a genius move to have one of the most indulgent (but in a good way) songs right beside one of the most tame. That contrast is what makes Massei not only a compelling writer, but an excellent producer as well. Most albums tend to run out of tricks in the middle, and yet, these two songs have shown us that he still has a few up his sleeve.
“Surrounding Skin” has some of the same elements we have heard before – padded organ/keyboards, scrappy electric guitar, and simple drumming. Yet here, they once again take a different and unexpected turn. On Viking Moses’ Bandcamp page, the lyrics to a section of this song look like this, “Feel alive! Feel in love! Feel the bones in your chest! Feel the surrounding skin, and the blood that flows within, just feel your stomach twisting beat-by-beat!” These exclamation points undermine the mournfulness of this tune. There’s almost a pastoral call to action here, to “feel alive.” I love how this section ends with “feel your stomach twisting.” It’s almost as if Massei believes our dread and anxiety are keeping us alive. Perhaps he’s right.
“Kid for the Cattle” is one of the grooviest songs on this record, despite not having any drums whatsoever. The rhythm is kept by some palm muted electric guitar notes and the scratchy acoustic guitar. It’s sibling on this record might be “Fool for the Flame,” and I can’t help but wonder if the similarity of the titles has anything to do with this. Once again, the lyrics are spiritual without coming across as preachy. Massei says, “Should the pollen of the clear tear the fallen from their fear, let it all disappear! O my Lord!” It’s difficult to write songs that mention a higher power without coming across as devout but Massei manages to pull this off with ease. In the last stanza of the song. he says, “We're calling it a home, no calm here no song, we're so sad and alone and prowling. I see life stalled in turn, left to fall, left to burn, O, I'll take what I learn and come crawling.” The mystery of these lines is entrancing and open to so many interpretations. Massei knows how to write a compelling couplet, that is for damn sure.
His voice is what truly makes this album remarkable. He’s able to move from mournful to comforting to gut-wrenching in the blink of an eye. On no song is that more apparent than “Killing Kind.” This song marks the return of the drum machine. Over some Wurlitzer-esque keyboard chords, Massei provides the best performance of the record. This appears to be a break-up song, but lacks the dark and haunting chords that fill most of the songs on Cruel Child. For that reason, this song feels like a hopeful dirge in the midst of the funeral procession. While the opening lyrics feel highly personal, the song eventually becomes about a more universal human experience. Massei sings, “I see you hesitating from the corner of my eye. We know the world ain't waiting, so why are you and I? But your appetite's degrading, and I'm lessened by each bite, while I wait and watch the world whet the taste of the killing kind.” People are cruel to each other, and that’s something we all have felt. This is my favorite song on the record. It feels powerful.
While most of the songs on Cruel Child feel slow and methodical, “Rough Rider” is a bit faster and feels sort of frantic. The snare rolls throughout the song make Massei’s pleas to “hold on” feel justified. There’s a few more beautiful images in his lyrics on this track. He sings, “Well, stand there on your fear, and settle where you can. Then, friend, all you'll hear is the salt drying on the skin of your empty hand.” Once again, Massei’s poetry is just gorgeous. The next song, “A World So Full Of Love” is a Roger Miller cover, with a few added stanzas by Massei. These two songs together defied my expectations for the album, and once again move it further beyond classification. Is it indie rock? Is it alt-country? Who can say.
The album’s closer, “Take Tender,” is another highlight of the album. Through the twists and turns this record has taken, Massei has not seemed to lose his faith in humanity. I’ve mentioned before that some of these songs feel like humanist hymns, and “Take Tender” is no exception. There’s a reverence in here, from the soft drumming to the low-tuned electric guitar strums. It feels pensive, waiting for the perfect moment to arrive. Massei sings, “Stones littered on the sand, here, at our feet. Blood puddled in the furrow. Heat lifts in bended waves for you and me; nor we pause for tomorrow!” His falsettos and the repeated dropping of a reverb tank provide a fitting end to this record and what a journey it has been.
In today’s independent music landscape, it’s refreshing to hear a record that is so focused on vocal performances. With all the fuzz pedals and studio wizardry available now, it’s tempting for bands and artists to create dense, impenetrable mixes but Cruel Child breathes. It feels human, as if Massei has laid his soul bare to reach some type of truth about the human condition. It is a record of questions, with a multitude of different answers and it begs the listener to hang on every word he sings. You would be doing your fragile heart a disservice if you did not listen to Cruel Child at least a few times in your life. I know I’ll be spinning it on my most desperate nights.