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What started as a side project is now a band to watch
A popular ’80s guitarist once offered some insight about his attitude towards songwriting. He compared it to making cheeseburgers, suggesting that once you figured out the right recipe you didn’t stray from it much, you just got down to the business of making good cheeseburgers and if people liked them, they’d buy them.
The Dead Testaments is the brainchild of Isaac Houck, guitarist and singer for Elk Milk. It started about a year ago when Houck began developing some ideas during some down time, ideas that were not necessarily Elk Milk material but were, in Houck’s words, a therapeutic exercise—music that just had to come out. The result was a set of tunes too good not to share, so Houck swiftly assembled a pick-up band of members of Elk Milk and Moonlight Bride (including the always lovely Matt Livingston) and Allie Stafford of Forest Magic to play a one-off show at JJ’s Bohemia.
The show was so well received that the decision was made to record an EP, as of yet untitled, but consisting of five rough tracks that show the kind of promise that will make The Dead Testaments an immediately respected player in the region.
Rough tracks or not, the EP already displays exemplary cohesion. Each tune is a genuinely unique expression, but certain elements are common to all. The vocals are low and growly, a mysterious stranger relating dark and menacing anecdotes over a background of lush instrumentation, ethereal, atmospheric, foreboding. More than anything else I’ve heard recently, this collection of tunes exhibits a mastery of mood and tone. It’s ear candy for those who can appreciate the macabre. This is “noir rock” in crisp black and white, full of shaded eyes, smoldering cigarettes and half empty bottles of Scotch. Frankly, it seems like less of an EP and more of a precursor to a full-blown concept album and a damn fine one at that.
Houck is very forthcoming about the influence of Leonard Cohen while writing this music, and I think fans of Cohen (the man is a living legend) will recognize it, particularly in track two, “Walking Backwards.” The key word here, of course, is “influenced,” which should in no way be taken to mean “derivative.” These tunes are wholly fresh and original; the nod to Cohen is just that—a nod. In fact, I think the best way to convey the overall sound of the EP is this: Based on the skill of the players and the quality of the compositions (lyrically and musically), The Dead Testaments could work up covers of Cohen’s “Everybody Knows,” Tom Waits’ “Black Wings,” and Nick Cave’s “Red Right Hand” and integrate them seamlessly into the set, turning an EP into an album instantly. The tracks are that good.
If sinister storytelling tickles your fancy, do not miss the opportunity to see them live at Sluggo’s on August 2. The EP is scheduled for release in late fall. While this all may have started as a side project, it is by unanimous decision that The Dead Testaments’ work is now the sole focus of everybody involved. Which is proper; work of this quality and potential demands nothing less. The Dead Testaments are Isaac Houck, Dave Maki, Matt Livingston, Jeremy Southern and Allie Stafford. If you are a music lover of any stripe, an evening spent with The Dead Testaments is an evening well spent.