Dead Raven Choir is mainly the endeavor of one Smolken the digger, a Polish immigrant living in Texas. "Death to Dead Wolves" is his second non-CD-R release and is my favorite Dead Raven Choir album yet. After messing around in harsher, noisier tones on two recent releases ("Sturmfuckinglieder" on Battlecruiser and "Sevenfold Songs of Death" on Pink Skulls), this album is back to the lifeless, acoustic, black metal-tinged recordings most of us know and love. I've recently learned that if an album title ends in "Wolves," then it is a "quiet" album. Except for the fact that there's nothing quiet about Dead Raven Choir other than volume; the intensity in these tracks is turned up to 50. This is music with all the light removed; it's dark and desolate and is not a place you'd dream of venturing alone.
"Death to Dead Wolves" is also the first non-CD-R release from the Jewelled Antler imprint, and Dead Raven Choir is the perfect place to start. This is a release that was commissioned by label heads/free-folk gods Glenn Donaldson and Loren Chasse. Smolken often takes somewhat obscure poetry and puts it to music, and this is the case here. Donaldson and Chasse asked him to tackle select poems by one of their favorite poets, William Everson. The results are stunning in their desolation as Smolken makes Everson's words his own. Instrumentation is sparse; acoustic guitars rise from smoke like dead trees reaching toward a black sun on the banks of the River Styx. But the real stamp of Dead Raven Choir authenticity, as always, comes in the vocals. I'd say the vocals are over-the-top, but that'd be selling them short. He sings every song as if he's on stage in front of thousands. This is drama like you've never heard it before.
Whispering the lines that open "Red Sky at Morning," Smolken comes off as a hooded demon tempting your better judgment by offering up all your worldly desires at the low, low cost of your soul. His voice is so full of contempt, it's spine chilling. As an acoustic guitar is rapidly strummed at random intervals, I feel like the entire world is falling down in ashes and flame around me. Everson's words come off as those from an angry God who has so much disdain for the world he has created, he sees destroying it as the only possible solution. This is the stuff of horror movies, and Smolken is the perfect narrator.
Most of these tracks are similar in approach and delivery, but they do not sound repetitious. Each is its own worst nightmare. While they all evoke similar imagery, the subtle differences keep them fresh. "Fog Days" uses a fast-picked acoustic guitar that makes me think of a person being stretched to their limit on a rack. It's delightfully twisted, and only Smolken could pull this off so perfectly. It's also amazing to me that something so dark and harsh could be created with mostly just an acoustic guitar and vocals. This is not the kind of music anyone would think of when using the phrase "singer/songwriter." Smolken is much more than that. He is a performer. He is an artist.
The most interesting piece here, though, is the 23-minute rendition of Everson's best known and most dissected poem, "A Canticle to the Waterbirds." I was caught completely off guard when a piano was used in place of an acoustic guitar. The birds in "A Canticle..." are mediators between humans and God. To hear Smolken play in such a context is impressive; I consider this one of his best pieces. This track is so affecting because of the great use of silence. Interspersed between the sparse notes on the piano, there is great space. "A Canticle to the Waterbirds" shows us that there is a great deal to be learned from these birds, and in these quiet moments, we are left to reflect on Everson's words. It's executed brilliantly.
Dead Raven Choir has become one of my favorite projects in the past year. Smolken is as unique and interesting an artist as there is in independent music, and his art reflects that. "Death to Dead Wolves" is his finest outing yet, and he only gets better with each subsequent release. There is something going on here that transcends music. I feel like I can cleanse my own demons through these jagged, twisted fables. Exhume any skeletons you've been hiding and offer them up to Dead Raven Choir. Let the wolves consume them until you are free. 8/10 -- Brad Rose (25 May, 2005)