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The Red Masque

Feathers For Flesh

Review by Julie Knispel

The Red Masque is an avant progressive band from the Philadelphia PA area. The quartet lists bands such as Bauhaus, Van der Graaf Generator, Gong and King Crimson, among others, as influences, and those bands can certainly be heard in The Red Masque’s music as direct ancestors. Formed by Lynnette Shelley (vocals, percussion, erhu, psaltery, miscellany) and Brandon Ross (bass, acoustic guitar, keyboards, vocals) in 2001, their material is dark and complex, eschewing instrumental fireworks in lieu of an emphasis on setting mood and exploring sound and texture. Over the years the band has gone through a number of line-up changes; on Feathers for Flesh, the lineup is filled out by long-time member Vonorn (drums, percussion, theremin, keyboards, bass, acoustic guitar, vocals) and Kiarash Emami (electric and acoustic guitars, mandolin, keyboards, vocals). Feathers for Flesh is the group’s fourth release, and second full-length effort. Released on Big Balloon Music, the album builds on the foundations laid by the earlier Death of the Red Masque (EP, 2001) and Victoria and the Haruspex (full length, 2002). One track, “Beggars & Thieves,” was released in 2003 as an advance single along with an embryonic and improvisatory version of “Yellow Are His Opening Eyes,” recorded live at the Metlar-Bodine House Museum on 29 March 2003. This is not music for the faint of heart, yet it will reward the adventurous listener unafraid to risk travelling down some dark musical pathways with an experience unlike any other.

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Track by Track Review
House of Ash
The album opens quietly, with a desert, eastern feel. Quiet percussion and strange bowed effects rest uneasily under whispered vocals. The band arrives some three minutes in, breaking the quiet with distorted bass, chanted vocals, and piercing guitar. Lyrically the song seems to weave a dark tale of ancient gods or daemons trapped, unable or disallowed to dine on the flesh of the living. Lynnette Shelley’s vocals cover the full range of her capabilities here, easily switching from a deep alto that reminds strongly of Grace Slick to a disturbingly sweet soprano. Heavy use of church-like organ and chant builds the unrelentingly dark mood.
A song filled with dichotomy. “Passage” features some of the quickest paced playing on the album, as well as some of the gentlest. Brandon Ross’s bass playing is a highlight here, playing heavily strummed chords that cut through the swirling sound mix. The song suddenly shifts gears, moving into a gentle vocal section with a jazzy vibe. Kiarash Emami’s shows a fluid adaptability with his guitar playing here, handling light melodic finesse and distorted, Fripp-like guitar lines with fluid ease. Always present are the touches Vornorn adds to the band; whether it’s staccato keyboard lines, eerie theremin or his solid drumming, his presence is a large part of The Red Masque’s sound.
Yellow Are His Opening Eyes
Eerie synthesizer and organ sets the stage for Shelley’s spoken-sung vocals, sounding more like incantation than song. A heavy section reminiscent of Larks’ Tongues… era King Crimson snaps the listener out of their reverie, the band showing themselves as adept at metal as they are with more subtle musical styles. Despite the multiple sections, each different in tempo and tone, the band flows from one to the next with ease, the composition sounding whole and not pasted together from varied components.
Beggars & Thieves
This is possibly the most “traditional” song The Red Masque has committed to album. Opening with strummed acoustic guitar and a pleasant medieval feel, the song retains the darkness the band is known for lyrically. The multiple guitar parts interplay with each other wonderfully, painting an audible picture of bards singing a cautionary tale to their audience.
Scarlet Experiment
By far the shortest piece on Feathers for Flesh at 3:46, “Scarlet Experiment” is, as the title infers, perhaps the most experimental, least traditionally structured composition here. Shelley’s vocals are mostly whispered, shifting from channel to channel while other vocal effects rise and fall in the mix. Found sounds and stringed instruments fill out the mix, creating something unsettling and strange. This is music by which nightmares are wrought, and likely should not be listened to late at night, with the lights low and thunder splitting the night, even though this seems a soundtrack written with that in mind.
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