Musician and songwriter Elli de Mon presented Pagan Blues in late April, two years after capturing the attention of audiences throughout Europe and beyond with her previous album, Countin’ The Blues. Brash, bold, and unwavering in its intent, de Mon’s most recent effort is a decidedly unnerving affair, perhaps intentionally so.
But Pagan Blues is unsettling and eerie in a way that the blues should be, and largely has ceased to be since the mainstream embrace of the form at its most homogenized as part of the standard bag of tricks for rock & roll groups in the 50s and 60s. The album is most fascinating in that it is a genuine character study of the blues form in the modern day.
Audiences tend to compartmentalize genres when they feel they’ve heard what they would consider the epitome of the style or the peak of the genre; all that comes after is dismissed as a cheap imitation. As such, when many folks hear the word “jazz” their minds immediately go to Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Miles Davis, John Coltrane, and so on; the usual suspects; just as “blues” provokes images of Muddy Waters, Robert Johnson, Howlin’ Wolf, and so on.
This type of self-imposed gatekeeping expands across all musical forms, particularly in Western culture. Country, rock, and hip-hop are all among the mainstream forms about which listeners will become highly defensive with regard to particular eras. Due to the prevalence of this phenomenon, it is genuinely captivating when an active artist in the present day pitches a legitimate take on a musical form that many listeners would consider to be all but locked away behind a plate glass observation panel beneath blinding and sterile LED lighting.
Given all this, Pagan Blues is a captivating character study not only of the artist behind the work, but of the blues as an idea. On a surface level, the record might seem astoundingly far removed from the hollowed out drawl of the finest export of the Mississippi Delta. There’s no commitment to an established set of sonic boundaries here; no bartering personal taste for validation by way of historical framework; the music is approached strictly on the terms of the artist at the helm.
With this in mind, Pagan Blues brings a bombastic variety of influences to the table – likely an expansive, marble dining room table within a large, haunted structure at the summit of a foreboding hill. This also isn’t merely a curation of elements delivered by hand-selected session musicians with pre-considered know-how in certain forms. Elli de Mon is the band.
The multi-instrumentalist conjures sweeping, gothic-tinged soundscapes which seem to channel elements of electronic music to the end of achieving noise rock sensibilities. But, at the centre of the proceedings, the discerning listener will recognize the all too familiar twang which first emerged from the deep American South. This is the haunted house that Son House built.
Track’s like ‘Sirens’ Call’, ‘Catfish Blues’, and the title track act as some of the most discernible utilizations of what traditionalists might consider blues forms. But the tracklist as a whole feels unified, with more experimental or explorative choices playing more as variations on a basic theme than red herrings or outliers.
The sound throughout is thick; glacial; enveloping; seemingly inescapable; while the vocals are often more subdued, the tone operating in notable contrast to the lyrics, drawing the listener into a universe in flux, actively and simultaneously being gradually destroyed and reassembled.
The canvas upon which de Mon works throughout the runtime of Pagan Blues is decisively lacking in discernible borders, making it all the more interesting, all the more admirable, and substantially less accessible. Though it’s likely fair to posit that most listeners less than a minute into the album could accurately determine which of those things matters the least to the artist in question.
This lack of confines essentially means that anything goes, thus much of the sonic terrain being traversed throughout the album deviates from the standard “bass, drums, guitar, subtly mixed keyboard’ format in favour of something less contrived.
Such lack of regard for generally accepted approaches is evident in a tune like ‘Ticking’, the theme of which almost undoubtedly has its origins in a temporary 4/4 metronome having sounded compelling enough alongside the song’s actual instrumentation to warrant a promotion to a legitimate instrumental track itself. Punchy drums and a borderline poppy hook section contrast with dissonant, low-key verse sections, amalgamating into something not dissimilar to what one might expect from 90s rock icons Garbage.
Perhaps the album’s most impactful moment, ‘Troubled’ brings Pagan Blues to its conclusion, and is arguably the traditional blues exercise throughout the album’s nine tracks. Staggering over stark drum kicks and tambourine slaps, a lyrical slide guitar bit wrestles with an immense droning presence akin to a sitar. Portions of the track seem to fall off bit by bit like pieces of an old car, lumbering to a close as de Mon repeats the patently bluesy refrain from which the song takes its title, “I am troubled, stay out of my way”.
Artist’s website: Pagan Blues | Elli de Mon (bandcamp.com)
‘Pagan Blues’ – official video: