With ‘Fredrick and the Golden Dawn’, Kevin Nolan has shaped his own warped world of devilish anguish and a brash theatricality, to which his debut album is the atmospheric soundtrack.
‘Fredrick and the Golden Dawn’ may start out with the fused influence of Tom Waits and Nick Cave stamped all over it, but it takes this ball and runs with it, constantly morphing and pressing against the boundaries in search of something fresh to say.
The one thing that is constant is its avid avoidance of predictability. It is instead a collection of tracks that seems pointed in a much more literary than commercial direction. In place of conventional hooks are moody moans of aching guitars and a discordant death rattle of piano keys that drag the listener (sometimes a little unwittingly) through a demonic carnival of sound.
The influence of Waits is all over Nolan’s gruff, husky vocal delivery. He introduces himself with a moody bark on Blood Wedding. Over the course of the slowly building track Nolan seizes upon this influence and sculpts it slowly into his own shape, culminating on a veritable dirge of sound all of his own as he moans out the mournful chorus of “Blood weeeeeding,” over and over again.
To reduce Nolan to his musical influences may actually be doing him a disservice, as there is a profound literary sharpness to his lyrics. It’s not hard to see shades of Nolan’s poetic boldness in lyrics like “Don’t think he stands to lose/ the devil at the lever in the engine room”, on Oil on Canvas.
Nolan is also a multi-instrumentalist in the true sense of the word, incorporating everything from guitar and piano to orchestral sweeps with strings and flutes. But this is done through a subtle interplay and alternation rather than letting everything all fall in at once for a big, insurmountable wall of sound. This subtlety and restraint creates something far more elegant, and it is this elegance that provides a neat contrast to the often harsh, brutal and unsettling atmosphere that pervades the lyrics.
Drowning bubbles up with a skin-crawling rattle of symbols and a guarded, surreptitious hush of strings that becomes almost a conspiratorial whisper that the listener illicitly overhears.
Ballade to St. Dymphna rattles along menacingly before it lets itself fade away to almost nothing on the bridge, where Nolan takes an audible breath before lunging into another verse. The duality between almost animalistic releases in the vocals, and finely contracted melody is a recurring theme throughout.
The album culminates, not with a bang but with a whisper, in the form of a tender and delicate duet Aubade (featuring guest vocals from Julie Feeney). It’s the sound of the last quiet gasps of a party that’s already ended – all the wine’s been drunk or spilled on the carpet, all the balloons are shrivelled and deflated – and all that remains are two lovers around the piano, saying their final goodbye to each other before departing from each other’s lives forever.
In a way, it almost feels like a this description should come with a spoiler warning, not because the album follows a strict connected narrative or concept, but rather that it just seems to have been building to a big, operatic release, and instead finishes on a moment that is both intimate and sad (but just too minor to be referred to as tragic).
‘Fredrick and the Golden Dawn’ never quite leads to where you expect. It dies prematurely but leaves its grimy sweet residue upon the ear to mark its passing.
With ‘Fredrick and the Golden Dawn’ Kevin Nolan has bitten off way more than a debut album should be able to chew through within the space of ten tracks. It’s impressive in its ambition, and even more impressive that it actually works.
The official launch of ‘Fredrick and the Golden Dawn’ takes place this Friday, 4th April in the Grand Social.