MATTHEW ROBB – History Before It Happens (own label)

History Before It HappensUK-born, but based in Germany, musically trading in blues/folk style with a propensity for protest, Robb’s been likened to van Zandt and early Dylan in his sensibilities, but there’s something in his voice and songs that puts me in mind of Martyn Joseph. You can hear it in the opener to History Before It Happens, ‘The Greatest Danger To Man Is Man’, with its calling out of mankind’s destructive tendencies and a creeping apathy in which “a nation of sheep begets a government of wolves” with “greed and sloth the mother of all evils” and “cheap bureaucrats undermine your integrity”. As such it’s also a call to rise up “break loose the chains and root the evil out” and “Prepare to fight step into your sovereignty for true disobedience is the key to liberty”. It’s fair to that here, as on several songs, he’s prone to belaboured over wordiness, but there’s no denying the convictions from where they come.

If Joseph’s echoed there, it’s Cohen who comes to mind on the more hopeful ‘Sacred Heart’ which, with its brushed drums, simple guitar strum and dusty vocals as he talks about staying true to your convictions (“fix your gaze, don’t look away or be blinded by the light of day”) and letting the inner spirit and love guide your path (“Sacred heart won’t you show your face like the moon that shines on the crest of the ocean waves… in this eternal dance, take my hand and show me the meaning of true romance don’t fall or rest, it’s time to live, take delight in your worthiness/when you awake you’ll be blessed and all your paths will lead to happiness”).

It’s back to enumerating contemporary evils (“Technocratic feudalism, the drift into transhumanism, scientific tyranny …governmental overreach, the demolition of free speech”) for the bass pulsing bluesy scuffed shuffle ‘The Devil Drives’ where Tom Waits hangs out with Warren Zevon. Again, it’s a tad verbosely overcooked ( “trick black mirror, gaze of the guard, in panopticon prison yards…the slow sadistic rape of mind/psychic numbing, cracking whips, everyday slaves to state worship…Witch hunts, germ warfare, the venom of nihilistic despair/the unspeakable, the deep state, robber barons dropping poisoned bait blood in their eyes, blood on their hands, the gullible masses, let the truth be damned”) with its visions of “marauding psychopaths in suits, like naked emperors on the loose/behind the scenes plutocracies in malfunctioning dead democracies see pockets of freedom slip away”, but you get the gist.

The second of three that edge past six minutes, carried by resonating guitar reverb and brooding bass, ‘Tower Of Babel’ is another conjuring of our self-created dystopia (“The corridors of power are dimly lit and the roads filled with famine and war/ The devil has been cast inside a bottomless pit and now tears up through the earth like a scar”) through war, greed and ecological short-sightedness (“the spirit on the water is dying of thirst and the folks have sewn up their eyes”), leaving us “running away as fast as we can from the one bullet left in the gun”, the track gathering to a doomy. chiming instrumental playout.

The ghost of John Prine hovers over fingerpicked acoustic ‘The Wanderer And His Shadow’ (the melody a ringer for ‘Speed At The Sound Of Loneliness’) with its reverie of better times (“The light rose at the heart of the world/I saw a rainbow in the eyes of my girl/It was what it was for what it’s worth/ and the rivers run like the veins of the earth/side by side in silent prayer/the dry wind blowing through our hair/down the broken shadows of time/I was yours and you were mine”) before “Astrid, the Mexicans and me” head down the path of mysticism “on our great journey east/coast to coast making haste/behind the wheel no license plates” as “a rave of ravens crossed our path/stole away the sun for a laugh/the moon clothed us in a blanket for the night/the wanderer and his shadow bound tight”. I‘m pretty sure it’s a love song.

The loping, noodling Dylanish snake oil blues ‘Throne Of Blood’ is most certainly not as he returns to an excoriating critique of humankind (“pushing hubris to the limit of insanity…transgressions becoming virtues, in this tapestry of lies… Manufactured crises, weaponised fear/the death of individuality in a town with no cheer… in mediocrity we revel/it’s the spirit of the age and all haste is of the devil”), its six minutes winding down with a blues rock jam.

As you might guess, ‘Little Black Train’ is about death (“when it comes to call on you, you can’t refuse to go”) and, in line with the well-rehearsed metaphor, it adopts a familiar country-blues chug in the tried and tested tradition of Johnny Cash. There’s not a huge degree of humour on the album, but this at least has a playful string of euphemisms (“Some say passed on, some just say plain dead/some say six foot under, some just say brown bread/some say sleeps with angels, some say gone to hell/some say the boy stopped running, some say the axe just fell”) for kicking the bucket.

Essentially, ‘War Is The Father Of All Things’ retreads the pessimistic perspectives of the human race visited earlier (“A reign of terror right before your very eyes/children of despair no one cares to hear their cries/where death it sings and the air it bleeds/war gets ugly when you’re down in the weeds/Faustian deals, diabolical pacts/a million throats crying the so-called facts/hammering verbal fictions into the heads of little men/pursuing freedom of thought like it’s a corrupt and deadly sin”) but here in dreamily soft and fuzzy semi-spoken manner that feels like a lullaby for the end of times when “The graves will give up their dead and sing, war is the father of all things”.

It ends on a musically simpler note with the early Dylan acoustic strum and organ feel of ‘Let It Go’ (think a slowed down ‘You Ain’t Going Nowhere’) but, again speaking of judgement day, with no lyrical lightening up (“The day is turning black/virtue stopped at all frontiers/the brutal fog of war/still ringing down the years…everybody’s trying to get out

but they’ve got no place to go…and when we’ve caged up everything/there’ll be nothing that we’ve saved”). And yet, amid the falling ashes, even he can find a still glowing ember as he ends “so take your partner by the hand/and dance while you still can/for longing is beautiful and child is the father of man”.

As I say, History Before It Happens is often overwritten and belaboured, rather like taking a hammer to crack a peanut, but the furnace that brings the fire is never in doubt and while it may often be vituperative in its condemnations, its doom-saying venom is born of a frustrated love rather than a blind hate. And as an album, it decidedly holds your attention.

Mike Davies

Artist’s website:

‘The Devil Drives’ – official video:

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