The Blackheart Orchestra – Hotel Utopia: Album Review

Into the Great Unknown with The Blackheart Orchestra.

Release Date: 23rd September 2022

Label: Ceandar Records

Format: digital / CD / 2LP

The Blackheart Orchestra – Chrissy and Rick – have been on the ATB go-to radar for a while now. Mesmerising on Mesmeranto in 2019, the Lockdown period saw them busy ‘working from home’ and in delivering Mute – a set of instrumental reinterpretations – but since the doors opened, 2022 has seen them back to their active selves on the road and creating new music. That new music comes in the form of Hotel Utopia. A set three years in the making, with thirteen songs emerging that, as fortune would have it, pick up on common threads of mortality and the afterlife. Lyrical musings on what happens and where we go (possibly to Hotel Utopia) when we depart the physical plain accompanied by a suitably BHO musical ethereality.

A subject too that’s a perfect match with the delicately crafted musical soundscapes the duo creates and having worked on the Mute variations, one might possibly be aware of some orchestral bleed into some of the new music. There seems a certain calm and tranquility about Hotel Utopia, not that it doesn’t have its more intense moments.

We’ve had the tease of Under The Headlights back in April. A fine choice; the swirling and gently lilting amuse bouche which by its familiarity is already established as an immediate highlight. The fear is that Hotel Utopia might then fall into the bracket that contains the albums where the single is great and the album is a disappointment. You can probably think of plenty of examples, yet rest assured that Hotel Utopia is not one of them.

The ambiences and moods in the arrangements show a fresh maturity as The Tide washes in with a hint of Clannad Celticity in the echoing voices; the underlying emotion, set to make regular appearances, is palpable. Sensitive subjects are treated respectfully while there are moments of celebration and uplifting inspiration. The carpe diem philosophy of The Warning is courted by the warmth of rich strings and fragile guitar and piano while God, Jesus and the Holy Ghost appear in the contrasting chugging chorus. It’s a stand-out ‘return to’ piece.

The shift in focus takes off into the ‘build a rocket boys’ notions of Astronaut where a Who-styled sequencer and power chording charge takes us into the world of our childhood dreams and ambitions, often diluted and filtered beyond recognition. Casting Spells too gets a bigger production – maybe some distant musical relation to Darling Africa and even Toto’s Africa – as it ponders the law of karma and how our afterlife is resolved come judgement day. It also raises a smile as the distinct possibility of a misheard lyric (something about witches in the wood casting spells – which may actually be spot on…) digs its way into the earworm closet.

The dirty guitar riff that wrings Translucent out of a slumber granting Rick the chance to get the valves fizzing on his amp, not for the only time on Hotel Utopia before a calm resumes on Atlantic’s skipping Cloudbursting rhythm and panting vocal. The notion of reincarnation reclaiming the sombre side of our existence is explored that sees the duo experimenting with slowed down vocals on Dust. An expereince that’s quite disconcerting, a trifle disturbing in its otherworldliness on first, and possibly subsequent, hearing.

However, we conclude with the spiritual healing of the uplifting Raise Your Heart – one to play over the PA as the audience leaves the show – although maybe more likely to feature as a set closer. A positive affirmation of the not knowing, the hoping and the wondering that Hotel Utopia invokes. And while the final track, The Flood, might be about apocalyptic endings, the promise of rebirth and new beginnings emerges. Reminiscent of some of the sublime Anathema dynamics, It is the perfect closing as a false ending gives way to an unexpected yet glorious and inspiring instrumental playout over five minutes that build into a series of climactic waves and crescendoes. Rick gets to play the solo of his life, the goosebumps prickle and the hairs stand up.

The challenge is for anyone not to find your own personal connection in at least one of the songs – the journey into the great unknown, catch a glimpse of what might lie on the other side. With The Blackheart Orchestra holding your hand and Hotel Utopia on the turntable it’s not a bad way to check out.

Here’s the opening track from Hotel Utopia, The Tide:

The Blackheart Orchestra online: Website / Facebook / Twitter / Bandcamp / Instagram 

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