by Blake Edward Conley
Instrumental music is often called cinematic in reviews. The lack of words to define a story invariably puts the onus on the listener. Less common is the instrumental band that attempts to purposefully paint a specific picture. Cortége from Austin, Texas test their mettle (and occasionally their metal) by presenting a concept album to the fullest extent on their latest album, Capricorn.
Cortége are a duo consisting of Mike Swarbrick and Adrian Voorhies who deftly provide a lush backdrop for their storytelling. While Voorhies handles drums and percussion, Swarbrick brings in bass, synths, and, most uniquely, tubular bells to create vast moving landscapes. It tells the tale of a visitor from the stars crash landing into the desert and its journey upon Earth. Heavy drums pound glacially, steady footsteps on sand, thunder echoing in the canyons. These thumps are enriched by thoughtful and carefully executed jazz flourishes serving as tasteful accents rather than displays of flash. Voorhies always makes his presence felt but it’s his restraint and subservience to the material that really shines. Swarbrick handles the melodic and textural heavy lifting. His synths evoking the barren tundras, sounds of wind and various carrion, laying out gorgeous vistas of the travel like auditory heatwaves, or giving you the hair raising suspense of impending danger. The knowing flawless deployment of the tubular bells (which they take on tour with them!) hit that sweet Morricone mental sign post that says ‘western score’. His bass work is the overt drive of it all. Singularly twangy and tremoloed, but when coated in distortion, heavy as get out. Everything tugs at reference points of spaghetti westerns without lapsing into clichés as the album progresses. Everything heard before comes together in the epic closing title track which displays the exploratory soundscapes, the anxious twang, and the metallic heft of the band over its near 20 min span, bringing the album journey to an end in a truly satisfying way.
The vinyl edition will be fleshed out with a comic book that you can read along with as the album progresses (note, more bands do this, please). But even without the narrative in front of you, the story can be felt and heard. And that is the true beauty of Cortége’s sound. The duo show that they know how to tell a structured narrative, utilize familiar musical motifs in ways that tug at the listeners memories, but do so in their own, sweeping way. This music shares a feel with Cormac Mccarthy, who himself is able to take familiar western tropes into unexpected new directions and deep feelings in his various novels. An ability to bring forth emotions that connect to universal is the hallmark of any great piece of art. You know how to tell the good guy by the colours of his hat in a western, you hope he’ll succeed in the eventual shootout, but you can’t know his journey and whether he’ll be able to save himself. It’s the little details in the plot that matter. The nuances of the performance. The shade of the paint on the canvas. Cortége know this and use their distinct flourishes to make their own roadmap into the tone poem they are telling. And do so compellingly.