One of the joys of doing this here site is getting things wrong. There are few things more refreshing in life than a little self-correction and then making things as right as possible. In this case, Wizard Tattoo.
I wasn’t too far off-base last month. I put it at #5 on my Top 10. The thing is, the damn album won’t leave me alone. While I’m not gonna change my mind on the #1 for June, I gotta admit that if repeated listening and obsessive thoughts are any indication, this is actually an Album of the Year contender.
In my blurb for the album, I wrote, “Concept albums are all the rage, and Bram the Bard is slightly ahead of the trend with Fables of the Damned continuing the saga of a dude who gets a tattoo and things get…weird. And fun, exciting and even heavy. It’s an addictive blend of old-school metal with a prog/stoner twist that will plant more than one stank face grin on thy visage. Damn, this guy’s fucking good!!!“
Indeed. But I can do better…
One of the things working against it is how good the music is. One can easily put any song of Fables of the Damned on a playlist and just let it jam in the background. The music is so darned accessible and effortless to listen to that it obscures what’s actually going on. But there’s a literal avalanche of good music nowadays, and music isn’t enough. That’s where Bram has an ace or two up his sleeve…
First of all, Bram the Bard is an excellent musician. One-man-bands can be a bit of a hit or miss. Some, like We Follow the Earth (review here) can pull it off and show extraordinary promise. Others…well, they could use someone else in the band to tell ’em how full of shit they are.
Bram is an entirely different beast. It’s like he has four other people in his brain giving advice and guidance. Right now, I’m listening to The Vengeful Thulsa Dan at the part where the bass does a sweet little Fleetwood Mac/John McVie line that’s percussive, almost martial in nature. At about 3:17 the most haunting synthesizer this side of early Genesis gives a soothing counter-melody that takes the whole thing to the next level. Then the guitars make an appearance with a menacing growl at 3:57, enhancing the cinematic effect of the song, until they break into a lead worthy of Welcome to My Nightmare-era Alice Cooper.
This just doesn’t sound like one person wrote and performed it!
But Bram’s not done yet, as his vocal delivery brings to whole piece to a rousing close. His vocals are raw and comparatively under-produced. Honestly though, it’s the vocals that won’t let me go. They way he sings the chorus on Black Mountain Pass is amazeballs, although I highly recommend reading the lyrics along with all the songs.
He’s performing, and every character, from the narrator to Thulsa Dan and Doctor Beast, have their own voice, accent and timbre. What makes it work is that he’s not relying on effects or production to pull it off, it’s him. That might not seem like a big deal, but I can’t think of too many other performers who can pull that off outside of theater, film, and audio books.
The crafting of the whole thing is exceptional, and the only artist I can compare Wizard Tattoo with is Mike Oldfield. Oldfield is legendary for recording every instrument himself, and practically launching the whole New Age genre of music. Fables of the Damned is far from New Age, though. It rocks from start to finish, but it’s every bit the art that Oldfield produced. There’s nothing high-brow or pretentious about it: it’s just really good!
Wizard Tattoo Story Telling
As in, this is a cohesive and engaging tale that I want to go back to, over and over and over. SO MANY concept albums are too dense and esoteric for their own good. I can’t count how many progressive-metal bands put out material over multiple albums with the “story” being indecipherable. It’s like we all nod our heads and clap because they tell us the main story, but the songs make no fucking sense whatsoever. They’re so far in their heads, which are so far up their asses, that they forget the most fundamental thing: TELL THE GAWDAMN STORY!!!
Beginning with the first EP, Wizard Tattoo, Bram is doing just that: about a Wizard Tattoo. The tattoo somehow takes over his mind, and he’s cast or sent or transported to another realm or something and weird things happen. It’s that simple.
Each element works together almost perfectly. The performance is able to make each song, each character, distinct. At the same time, as a multi-instrumentalist, Bram is able to also give each instrument their own voice and space. Which would seem obvious…
In truth, that ain’t so easy. Solo performers tend to do two things: play each instrument the same way, which can lead to precise, almost robotic rhythm sections with no heart, or play the bass/drums/synths in support of the guitars and vocals. Either way, the end result can be 2-dimensional. Awesome, from a guitar-worship perspective (cough, Joe Satriani, cough cough) but otherwise kinda dull once the novelty wears off. I think Fable of the Damned completely avoids this tendency, which adds to the subtlety and enjoyment of the tale.
Lastly, album covers matter. Once again, he NAILS this one. Like the rest of the work, it’s surpassingly simple: a comic book cover. The ‘wizard’ is clearly Gandalf, with an expression laying somewhere between mirth and ominous intent. Immediately to the left are renderings of Thulsa Dan, The Brawler, and Doctor Beast.
The heading is straight out of golden-age comics, with a stylized Fables of the Damned evoking Weird Mystery Tales and other pulp-horror tomes. To the immediate left is Wizard Tattoo, a skull and crossbones symbol and the date. All the way in the upper right is the comic book code seal of approval and the 10 cent price right below it. The cover looks old, well-read and frayed at the edges.
Again, simple but detailed. I gotta admit, I find myself staring at it, the 8-year-old in me DEMANDING a full-blown comic book. And it wouldn’t surprise me at all of something like that were in the works.
The Bottom Line
Look, your either gonna buy or stream this now, or you’re gonna wait 10 years or more until someone else pulls this out of the air and it gets celebrated for the classic that it is. You, gentle reader, have the opportunity to experience the greatness of Fables of the Damned and Wizard Tattoo now! Although I highly recommend buying them off Bandcamp and getting the lyrics to fully enjoy the experience.
One last thing though: it might not “click” right away. But I’m confident that, for a majority of you, this will become an album that you go back to quite often. Maybe not daily like I do, but often enough.