49 Burning Condors – Seventh Hymnal
Sometimes you don’t know you need something until it’s right there in front of you. Maybe it’s sampling a new dish with a heavenly blend of flavours that you’re desperate to replicate, or trying your hand at a new hobby that brings you such joy that it becomes a central pillar of your personality, or watching a mind-blowing new show and feeling the need to recommend it to everyone you cross paths with. Your thought process goes from “where has this been all my life?”, to “where can I get more?”, faster than a speeding bullet, as the need to chase that high takes ahold of you.
Two bands that have recently instilled this feeling in me, thanks to the vivid and distinctive atmospheres that they conjure, immediately spring to mind. Belwood favourites The Amazing Devil, flitting between boisterous fantasy tavern anthems and twisted hymns recited by wizened crones in a dark forest clearing, and the sadly now defunct Coyote Kid, and the way they evoke duelling gunslingers in the heart of the dustbowl and deals with the devil at the crossroads. Somewhere at the intersect between the two is where one finds 49 Burning Condors. Steeped in Americana and the deep South in particular, capturing the tone and feel of the sweltering heat and tangled wilds of the bayou, while at the same time instilling in you the feeling of something ancient and sinister lurking just over your shoulder.
When done right, atmosphere is everything. If you’re making a horror film for instance; offer up a decaying mansion on a stormy night. Cobwebs in every corner, creaking floorboards with every footstep, shadows dancing by candlelight just on your periphery, and the oppressive downpour outside quashing any thoughts of escape. Before you’ve introduced a single character or laid down a single plot point, you’ve already set the tone and got the tension building up. You’re already telling a story before a single word has been uttered.
With Seventh Hymnal, 49 Burning Condors prove to be masters of this exact kind of cinematic storytelling. The slinky blues guitar packed with grit, world-weariness and a rough rustic charm. Some of the most bewitching violin you could ever hope to hear taking centre stage, sending the devil fleeing with his forked tail between his legs. For a band from Philadelphia they’ve got southern blues and country refined to its purest state. It offers such a clear sense of place, sharing a style so often associated with being warm and homely, before then plunging it into such an intoxicating and uncompromising sense of darkness for a truly stunning contrast. There’s a heavy air of doom that hangs in the very fabric of the album. The drum beats impactful and ritualistic, the violin sometimes swapping its usual rise and fall for an unnerving hum like a medieval hurdy-gurdy. There’s an ancient and mystical menace to the arrangements that speaks of witches and wendigos and a growing hunger in the shadows.
The album has such a unique and well-defined identity, that before you’ve heard even a single breath of vocals, it has already set the scene and begun to tell its story. This isn’t a record that requires multiple listens to unravel. Even if just left to its own devices in the background, it manages to grab you by the scruff of the neck and take you away on a journey. The incredible, imposing atmosphere does so much heavy lifting on Seventh Hymnal, that the vocals and lyrics are just the icing on the cake. The vocals soar and drone as if casting a spell, all while weaving tales of swamp sirens (‘Red Drum Skin’), angels and demons (the title track and ‘Noonday’ respectively), and a forest that feeds on memory (‘Willow Tree’).
My only gripe with Seventh Hymnal is its length. Only 30 minutes long with seven tracks, it’s at the cusp of what actually constitutes an album. While I’d normally advocate a policy of “all killer, no filler” wherever possible, I think this release really warrants at least a couple more tracks to flesh out the experience. It feels a bit like one of those tiny slivers of food they dish out at gourmet restaurants: it doesn’t matter how delicious it is if you still leave feeling unsatisfied and hungry for more. 49 Burning Condors have forged a captivating vibe here, and it’s a shame that they’re holding out on us. The dichotomy between the warm Southern charm and the ominous witch-rock gloom found on this debut album is really something to behold – like the safety of a campfire, surrounded by the gaze of unseen horrors in the wild bayou beyond.