REVIEW: Death is Their Shepherd

Physick’s long awaited sophomore album Death is Their Shepherd releases this Saturday: All Hallows’ Eve 2015.  DITS contains perhaps the most ambition I have ever seen in any musical project, only rivaled by Sufjan Stevens’ The BQE film, album, and comic book pairing.

Death is Their Shepherd Digital Cover 

DITS is an 80 minute concept album paired with an illustrated short story drawn directly from imagery evoked by the music.  More than that, the band – Michael Minkoff and Phil Hodges, whom we interviewed recently – suggests a “cycle of therapeutic mortality consciousness” wherein the “traveler” first listens to the album on speakers, then reads the narrative, and finally listens to the album a second time on headphones in private.  While the two pieces are meant to be enjoyed together, they are still works of art in their own rights.  It’s nowhere near anything I’ve reviewed, so I am going to break up my post into three parts – the album, the narrative, and the experience – and detail my thoughts and feelings on each of those elements.

The Album

Just as it’s hard to describe the DITS project, Physick’s sound is hard to nail down.  Perhaps a fitting definition of the band would be a psychedelic jazz-rock orchestra.  The music is as eclectic as its inspirations, but these almost conflicting styles never crowd each other out or compromise the flow of the album.  As obtuse as it seems from the surface, DITS is a surprisingly easy listen.  The music is immersive and impeccably arranged.  Tracks like the opener, midpoint, and closer (“Hi-Fruktose Noize Sserp,” “Before the Silver Tether Breaks,” and “Waltzing with Woland,” respectively) layer rich textures together without becoming overbearing.  Complex tracks like the polyrhythmic “Requiem Shark” contrast the more straightforward approach of songs like “Memento Mori.”  The instrumental interludes are delicately spaced to create room for meditative moments.  The album’s second suite prominently features a choir, which elevates the whole album to grand heights.  Phil’s vocals rarely exceed a comfortable range, though it is befitting to the album the few instances when they do.  It takes a song or two to adapt to Physick’s dense and direct style of writing music and lyrics.  However, it begs for another listen by the time the door has closed on the album.

The Narrative

While the music on the whole sets a more mysterious tone, the narrative makes the jump from mysterious to eerie rather quickly.  After arriving home late from clubbing, our troubled young protagonist Zakary Adamson is visited by Death in a sort of dream or open vision.  Death, unwelcomingly and perhaps unwittingly, helps Zak grapple with his father’s death and his own impending death.  “When my dad died,” Zak thinks at one point in the narrative, “I was left with only two beliefs to choose from: either My dad’s death is meaningless.  OR  God is cruel.”  Zak’s journey with Death through Hell, memory, and the worlds beyond helps him reconcile this dilemma in a way unexpected both to Zak and to Death.

Given the abstract scenario and surreal imagery, it would have been very easy for the narrative to fall into monotonous reading.  Don’t get me wrong: the imagery during Zak’s metaphysical journey is powerful and haunting; but they are so detached from typical experience that it makes it somewhat hard to read.  However, Michael really struck the balance between the fantastical sequences and allowing the reader to ground himself in “the real world.”  Just when I was longing for a breath of air from the dreamscape/vision, the story directed its focus on memories and the present (most notably at the beginning of Part 2).

The Experience

So, at this point in our review, we’ve listened to the album, read the narrative, and now we’ve come to the close of the cycle by listening to the album one last time on headphones.  Was it really worth having both an album and a short story produced and packaged together?  I’m happy to say, “Yes, it was.”

Both the album and the narrative are broken into five suites making up two parts: Memento and Memorial.  The titles of the three Memento suites take their names from the traditionally associated liturgical iconography, being The Flower, The Skull, and The Hourglass.  The Memorial suites are titled The Bread and The Wine, also based on traditional symbols.  Breaking the project into these smaller movements helps strengthen the associations between the album and the narrative.  The body of the narrative even contains smaller markers which represent the track breaks.  The short story and the album lyrics share a lot of the same verbage and phrasing, if not outright quoting each other, which adds a layer of familiarity when going from the album to the narrative and vice versa.  Within the album are hidden foley sounds that mirror scenes from the narrative.  For example, a thunderstorm starts the scene leading into the climax, and you can hear thunder cracking at the beginning of the corresponding track in the album.

These small efforts really help the two pieces of the project effectively blend together.  The interplay helps the traveler appreciate the album and the narrative to a greater extent than they would if the two were on their own.  The first listen introduces the traveler to the main concepts, the narrative gives those concepts a face, and the second listen brings both the visceral and cerebral together.  The cycle works very well, and it shouldn’t be overlooked.

So far we’ve established that Death is Their Shepherd is very effective; with this project, that means that it also affective.  You don’t need to submerge yourself in the album for years before it becomes evocative.  DITS is evocative and emotionally moving from the get-go.  The closing sequence of “Fall Story” creates a great sense of distress and chaos while the final suite gives the experience the closure it demanded during the first hour of music.  However, the album does take those first sixty minutes to thoroughly grapple with the content – well, at least as thorough as you can get while still producing a listenable album.  The album could be longer, but Physick really hits the sweet spot in length.  Death is Their Shepherd is a complete experience: not too shallow and not too indulgent.

However, this strength of Death is Their Shepherd also happens to be its key weakness.  I’ve had the luxury of knowing Michael and having long conversations about the album.  I’ve been able to see his heart behind it and catch glimpses of the hard work and care that has been devoted to it.  To an extent, I went into this project with preparation, and I think that it was a major influence in my positivity towards the project.  DITS is a little intimidating, and it really needs a gentler introduction than just jumping in with both feet.  This will deter a lot of people.  Either they’ll be too lazy to take the effort the project demands, or its stark tone will repel them when they dive in unprepared.

However, to those who do desire to prepare themselves to experience this project at its maximum potential, I have a suggested preparation cycle.  Read this review (hey, you’re already almost done with step one!), watch the video from their Kickstarter project (which still needs you!), listen to some or all of their inspirations mixtape (here!), and read their interview with us (here!).  I’m not saying this to toot my own horn, but I am saying this because Michael and Phil put a lot of work into that video, mixtape, and interview.  I just wrote the interview questions and asked for a Spotify playlist.  They provided the substance in that post, and they selected and arranged the 24 tracks for the Spotify playlist.  Not only does this show the care that they put into their work, but the content of these posts is actually very revealing.  Even in the mixtape, I could hear the common thread that is Physick’s sound.  It’s such a great introduction to their tastes.  I can only hope that this will give you an adequate preparation for the project.

If you are unsure that a music album or a story deserves this much effort, think of how you would feel about a movie.  Most movies are two hours long, and most people are okay with sitting through a whole movie.  The highest grossing movies of all time even tend to be longer than two hours, and those generally involve waiting in lines to see them.  You don’t have to wait in line to experience Death is Their Shepherd, so why not instead spend that time preparing for the experience and set aside the time to listen to the album in one sitting?

In closing, there is a lot to be said about this project.  Death is Their Shepherd is an epic (in the unadulterated sense of the word), heavy, intelligent, compelling, and satisfying project.  Not only is DITS a worthwhile experience, but it’s also worth re-experiencing.  A few listens will only scratch the surface of the album, and its aesthetic excellence makes it enjoyable to revisit and reconsider.  Physick has achieved quite an accomplishment with this project, and they have definitely put out one of the best albums of this year.  Michael and Phil’s four years of work have really paid off, and I can only dream of where they will go next.

You can find Physick at the following links.

Bandcamp \\ Facebook \\ NFfCR Artist Page

A postscript: Physick has a little more time left on their Kickstarter, and they need your support to give this project the fully-realized tangible release that it deserves.  There are a lot of great incentives and some screamin’ deals: a double album and e-book for only $10?  Madness!  A physical version for only $25?  Outrageous!  The priceless originals are even up there for the taking, too!  You can visit their fundraiser here.

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