Blackbird: Fly Into The Light
One to Three
Long time since we have written something about Men On The Border. Men On The Border are a Swedish band, formed around Göran Nyström and Phil Etheridge, who surprised us in 2012 with the album ShinE! (review: Full of guitars and no dust...).
That debut album contained only Syd Barrett covers, but their second album Jumpstart, from a year later, mainly had self-penned songs (review: Jumpstart).
Unfortunately, the CD market more or less collapsed, and plastic wasn’t profitable any more, especially when you are a young band on the verge of a breakthrough. The third album from 2015 – Live In Brighton – was a digital download only (on Amazon and Spotify) (review: Live in Brighton).
We are in 2020 but this doesn't mean that Men On The Border hasn't done anything for the last lustrum. There was a spectacular gig with the Sandviken symphony orchestra and a psychedelic light show by Peter Wynne-Wilson at the Corn Exchange (Cambridge) on the 27th of October 2016, resulting in a smashing single (on Spotify) with special guest Rachel Barrett. (Youtube audience recording: Long Gone.)
Other gigs and singles were announced at regular intervals and at the bottom of this article you can find an overview of sites where you can find videos and tracks of the band.
We were pleasantly surprised when we heard that Men On The Border jumped on the vinyl bandwagon and announced a new physical release, Blackbird, with a sleeve by Ian Barrett (who also did Jumpstart, BTW).
Looking at the tracklisting we saw that several of the tunes were already known to us. Göran Nystrom agrees:
They are indeed single songs from many years ago and a few new ones.
We wanted to remix and remaster and give them a proper home on an album.
So something old and something new on some good old-fashioned coloured vinyl. Let’s hear it from the boys. Here is the Reverend’s verdict.
Men On The Border – Blackbird – Side A
To The Promised Land
You can't deny that Men On The Border is Swedish. The opening song of their new album Blackbird starts Abba-esque enough to take away all doubt. I’m thinking of The Piper here, that was on the flip-side of the Super Trouper single and that, so I have learned, has something of a cult status among fans. I have always thought it was a hint towards Pink Floyd, but apparently, that is not the case.
But let’s get back to the Men On The Border and the opening song of their album.
To The Promised Land is more than that. Men On the Border like to garnish their songs with elements from the past and this one is no exception. The song is a dreamlike evocation with a friendly nod, I think, to Greg Lake, from early King Crimson fame and of course Emerson, Lake & Palmer.
I also hear faint shadows of the folkie minimalism of Mike Oldfield. Think of Ommadawn, or perhaps even more appropriate, Hergest Ridge. This doesn’t mean that Men On The Border are mere copycats. They take several ingredients out of the encyclopedia of rock, mix them and perform the result in their typical cool Nordic style.
At two minutes in the song, there is an obvious nod to I Am The Walrus. It only takes a few seconds but it is enough to make the hairs on your arms stand up.
Men On The Border plunder the past or... let me rephrase that...
Men On The Border lend from the past and of course, they are not the first to have done so, just have a go at early Led Zeppelin for instance. Also, Syd Barrett from Pink Floyd, as you probably know, was a master sampler, and even his band’s name was taken from the liner notes of a blues compilation (read that story at: Step It Up And Go).
But Men On The Border never turn their samples into a parody, like for instance Jennifer Gentle did – intended or not – on Take My Hand and other songs.
Göran Nyström, whom I think is the main lyricist of the band, also uses the phrase "Take My Hand" in the To The Promised Land song, although it is not certain if the Promised Land really is a land of milk and honey or just another nightmare of an LSD-induced brain.
This song invariably makes me think about the enigma that Syd Barrett was, but as you know we, Syd Barrett anoraks, have a kind of short-circuit in our brains that makes us believe that everything in the world is Syd Barrett related.
So probably I’m just erring, because the follow-up songs from this record point to another direction.
But what I can say you is this, To The Promised Land is a grower of a song and an excellent opener of Blackbird.
(Above text was read by the Reverend, in true inspector Jacques Clouseau style, for the live video show ‘Blackbird Unboxing’ on Facebook.)
The next couple of songs on the A-side are protest songs, which makes the A-side of Blackbird more or less a political record, but in a polite Swedish way. Sweden being something like the Canada of Europe, so to speak. Men On The Border are much more Coldplay than Sex Pistols as an early bird-hopper confided to me.
The Populist evidently is about those politicians who rise everywhere in Europe and the Americas and who use tweeted one-liners to propagate their political agenda.
It is one of those semi-soft Border ballads these men thrive in. Not a bad song though, but it could have been spiced a bit more. If there is one major point of criticism from me to them it is that they never yank their amplifiers to eleven or spit the venom out.
But once you feel comfortable in the Men On The Border universe it nests in your brain like an earworm. At two minutes forty-five minutes the men put their toes in a prog-like puddle that could’ve taken a bit longer.
Why We Build the Wall
Track three of the album is Why We Build the Wall. Indoctrinated as I am as a Floydian anorak I immediately linked this to The Wall album, a hint that was probably deliberately built-in by Men On The Border. The previous song, The Populist, used the phrase ‘dark side’ and these are phrases put in to trigger our musical memory (at least, so it seems to me).
Why We Build The Wall is an Anaïs Mitchell song, taken from her ‘folk opera’ Hadestown (2010) that was also turned into a theatre play. That album musically relates to the ancient Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice. The wall in question is the fortification around Hadestown, build to keep the so-called enemy out. But the enemy turns out to be the have-nots who want to find a better life inside the city walls.
The song Why We Build The Wall acquired a more modern interpretation in 2016 when a presidential candidate promised he was going to build a wall at the American – Mexican border. In a column for HuffPost Anaïs Mitchell reacted:
Suddenly it felt like the song was speaking directly about today's politics, rather than ancient mythology. People began to ask if it was written in response to the Trump campaign when in reality, both Trump and the song were simply tapping into the same folk archetypes. There is nothing new about the Wall. Political leaders have invoked it time and again to their advantage because it works so well on people who feel scared.
The songwriter ended her article with the following plea: “Let’s not elect him President.”
But we all know how this has ended.
The Men On The Border version is pretty close to the original (or one of the originals, as there are different versions of the song), although they venture more or less in prog-land thanks to the guitar intro and intermezzi.
In this cover, they show themselves from a slightly more aggressive way and that’s the way I like it. Great tune.
She Took A Long Cool Look
In Douglas Adams' excellent sci-fi series The Hitch-Hiker's Guide To The Galaxy appears a rock band called Disaster Area. They are the loudest band in the universe and have been inspired by the theatrical shows of Pink Floyd. This has got absolutely nothing to do with the Men On The Border’s cover version of She Took A Long Cool Look.
It starts slow, very slow, in a Poles Apart fairground kind of way. A cool idea, at least for the first 30 seconds. It made me wonder how the song would be evolving, later on, knowing the Men’s obsession for turning Barrett classics into something new. Reggae? Punk? Symphonic Metal?
Unfortunately, it doesn’t evolve at all and it goes on forever and ever, like a record with a stuck needle. Even the flimsy musique concrète bit in the middle can’t salvage this, although that would have been the right place for a tempo change.
I wrote in the introduction that this album assembles several songs MOTB have recorded for the past four or five years, including quite a lot of Syd Barrett covers. Why they chose this one is a mystery to me.
Disaster area indeed and a failed experiment.
A heartbeat rhythm – there’s Pink Floyd again! - starts Blackbird Song, the title track. It is followed by an early U2 guitar, before adventuring into an Owner Of A Lonely Heart riff.
It’s a happy little tune about someone whose mind drifts off when he can’t sleep at night and a great closing track of Side A.
Men On The Border – Blackbird – Side B
Side B of Blackbird contains a few Syd Barrett classics that have been transmuted by Phil and Göran. I am a great admirer of people who destroy and rebuild a cover. I have hinted a few paragraphs before this can either turn into something exciting or into a failed experiment.
The second side of Blackbird shows us how the Border’s cut and paste technique can turn into something pretty stimulating.
Scream Thy Last Scream
Scream Thy Last Scream, for instance. It’s an older one as I seem to have an early version of this song dating from somewhere in 2014. It was quite spectacular then and it still is.
The song starts pastoral with Grand Vizier's Garden Party flutes, before hitting it off in a Television Personalities neo-psychedelic extravaganza.
Not a Syd Barrett original, obviously. Call it a bit avant-garde-jazzy or art-of-noisy before it evolves in another one of those default Border semi-soft rock songs with an airy funky beat. Despite the F-bomb it never gets angry and the refrain is another one of saccharine quality. A great little song with some cool keyboard and guitar and overall an attractive arrangement.
Milky Way / I Never Lied To You
A threatening bass glides into a cute guitar solo that never crosses the border of prog but comes pretty close. With its first strophe Milky Way almost turns into a lost crooner classic. The refrain, if there is something like a refrain in this song, is a bit rougher to the ears.
Three minutes and 30 seconds in the song there seems to be a Metallic Spheres (Paterson, Youth & Gilmour) inspired ambient mid-piece that progressively slides into I Never Lied To You that gets a soft funky new romantics treatment.
Not really extraordinary but nice.
Dominoes Mark 2, the dance version, as Göran more or less describes it. A quasi-funky neo-psychedelic version of an almost perfect song, screaming for a 15-minutes full-fledged house remix.
The psychedelic orchestra makes me think vaguely of ‘The Old Tree With Winding Roots Behind The Lake Of Dreams’ Time mix by Youth and Jaz Coleman from Killing Joke fame (on the album: Us And Them – Symphonic Pink Floyd).
This Border version is a bit under-cooled and if there is one global criticism of me about Men On The Border in general, it is that they never dare colouring outside the lines. Too much Alan Parsons and not enough Prince.
Which is weird, because they tend to cover the guy who used a Zippo lighter to massacre his guitar strings. At the other hand Men On The Border are not afraid to go on tour with a symphonic orchestra, like good old Deep Purple, and as such, they have more or less become the Cambridge Mafia house band.
Dominoes is good, very good even, ending Blackbird on a high note.
When Men On The Border enter the gate into Barrett-land, they tend to milk from that Aquarian fifth dimension. Once you have grown accustomed to that somewhat lazy Nordic style of theirs, there is a pretty great album hidden inside that Ian Barrett sleeve. They do know how to write an earworm of a song and as we all know... the early (black)bird...
See Emily Play
Not on this album, but available as a (download) single is MOTB's brand new version of See Emily Play. Enjoy!
Link for recalcitrant browsers: See Emily Play.
Blackbird can be internationally ordered from:
116 37 Stockholm
Tel: 08-702 97 98
Many thanks to: Göran Nyström & Men On The Border.