The burgeoning roots revival that has taken hold in recent years has spawned a great many new bands and singer/songwriters. Out of a significant yet heterogeneous faction of them, there are certainly more than a fair number, existing as most worthwhile things do on sacred ground well beyond the borders of the mainstream, whose experimental songs aren’t exactly what a music purist would deem proper roots material. That is due in part to all of the genre and subgenre crossbreeding, or musical hybridization, as it were, by bands and singer/songwriters endeavoring to combine the roots styles of a bygone era with a number of latter-day outsider styles that have since developed throughout the scene. A reasonably new addition to the scene is the Heathen Apostles, a dark roots and gothic country band out of Los Angeles, whose newly released debut on Ratchet Blade Records, “Boot Hill Hymnal,” is a perfect example of this.
Heathen Apostles began when singer/songstress Mather Louth (Radio Noir) and seasoned punk figure Chopper Franklin (The Cramps, Charley Horse), each with a fondness for the darker side of roots-centered music, came together and conspired to develop just such a sound, though based on their very own creative visions and musical ideas. Musician Thomas Lorioux (Kings of Nuthin’) was soon brought into the fold, and baptized a fellow heathen, so that he could contribute upright bass to the project. Together, these three birthed a signature sound built on a foundation of guitar, banjo, mandolin, keyboards, bass, and vocals. Even so, like many other roots artists, the Heathens are fine with employing fellow artists throughout the scene to provide additional instrumentation, just as they had for the album. And…on evidence presented by listening to the album itself, the auxiliary instrumentation by non-members indeed served to lay down layers of sound ornamentation, and, as it were, overall compositional improvement. And that is how such remarkable songs as Red Brick Dust, Dark Was the Night (no, not the Blind Willie Johnson gospel blues masterpiece), Never Forget, The Reckoning, The Dark Pines, and It All Came Down were forged.
Both organic and mechanical, or rather both acoustic and electric, the Heathens’ sound possesses twang and distortion, eerie string arrangements and measured rhythms, finger-picking and foot-stomping, the keen low-end of the upright bass and…a host of other qualities, all of them complemented by the sultry yet haunting female vocals of the lovely Mather Louth. In its way, it is also a rather cinematic sound they have created, evoking both old-timey and present-day imagery. And the dark, fire n’ brimstone poetry of the lyrical content…lines of meaningful words which altogether prove a compass of sorts, its points pausing briefly here and there at dusty desert wastelands to the West, sprawling gray cities to the East, Heaven to the North, and Hell to the South. To get to these musical destinations, there is much in the way of sin and virtue, the saved and the damned, tragic love affairs and that which transpires before the fall, nature and artificiality, pleasure and suffering, beauty and ugliness, sanity and madness, and so on in the way that contraries pull the human heart and soul this direction and that direction. Ultimately where we end up is a mystery, however, a well-kept secret about by the haggard sisters of fate, who sit crooked in their dank and sparsely furnished cells, weave the fabric of life with gnarled fingers on their ancient looms, and to often snip the strings of providence too high or too low.
“Boot Hill Hymnal” can be inserted into the noteworthy category of today’s roots music, beside such comparable artists as Phantom of the Black Hills, Tears of the Moosechaser, Bad Luck City, Sons of Perdition, The Dead Brothers, Munly & the Lee Lewis Harlots, Those Poor Bastards, Peter Murphy’s Carver Combo, and the like. Recorded at The Devil’s Doghouse in Echo Park, and produced and mixed by Chopper Franklin himself, “Boot Hill Hymnal” consists of ten all-original tracks of the Heathen Apostles’ dark roots, gothic country, murder balladry, and historic Americana. Some of the songs were composed by Franklin, some by Louth, but in most cases by both of them together…and they did an excellent job in that respect.
While the songs on “Boot Hill Hymnal” are inextricably bound to the present, the modern American South West, but reaches back to long gone years in humankind’s history to come across as a vintage soundtrack to the dusty Depression era, with its filthy faces and empty pockets, its tattered clothes and worn-out shoes, and infertile soil as far as the eye could see; to rattlesnake-handling preachers delivering fevered revival tent sermons while members of the congregation are moved by the spirit and flail about as they speak in tongues; to so many sickbed prayers falling from the dray and cracked lips of those stricken with consumption and nearing their ends; to painted harlots lounging in ornate parlors of brothels on the outskirts of town; to gypsy hexes and acts of six-gun vengeance; to shadowy bounty hunters on horseback, stalking their prey through the moonlight hours; to Johnson Family hobo wanderers sitting around a fire and passing around a bottle of rotgut beneath a rickety covered bridge off a dirt road somewhere in the American countryside; to battered old bibles placed religiously on bedside tables, only a few feet away from the ol’ double-barrel shotgun, and white-robed sinners waiting in line for muddy river baptismal immersions in the Deep South; carrion birds circling overhead, biding their time before descending upon a lover murdered in a violent act of passion; and the like.
That is the Heathen Apostles’ “Boot Hill Hymnal.”