Ostara - Napoleonic BluesNapoleonic Blues is the latest instalment of Ostara's pop-edged neo-folk, following on from 2013's Paradise Down South also released on Soleilmoon. It's an uplifting and spirited recording fusing acoustic folk with a pop sheen that shines throughout Napoleonic Blues.
Ostara evolved from Strength Through Joy, Occidental protégés of Death In June, and following various line-up changes, Ostara is now and has been for a number of years just Richard Leviathan, here aided by Tom Weir (on drums and percussion) and Dave Lokan (on bass for one track), the fabled Big Sound Adelaide producer who has worked on prior Ostara releases as well as with Death In June, Scorpion Wind, Isomer, Bordel Militaire and Alkaline Trio.
Leviathan has proven to be quite the intellect, previously steeping his lyrics in mythology, symbolism and heady philosophical concerns but with Napoleonic Blues his poetic form and insights are condensed into lyrics that are more simple and direct. The themes which inform Richard Leviathan as Ostara remain but they're streamlined into something much more straightforward. Ostara share a kinship with many names in the neo-folk genre but their music once acoustic strum, is now more varied and powerful, at times folk tinged, and at other times anthemic all filled with melodic pop hooks. The accessibility of the music belies the complex thought and meaning that Leviathan has compressed into a wonderful poetic form.
Napoleonic Blues is a concept album, described as "a reflection on the persistence of the past in the chaos of the present". Unlike many acts in the neo-folk genre who fixate on Europe, and its victories and defeats. Ostara cast their gaze far wider with a global view that stretches from the deindustrialisation of Detroit in America to the embattled zones of Gaza and Tehran in the Middle East. Paradise Down South, the previous Ostara album, ruminated on the effects of the global financial crisis and Napoleonic Blues furthers this crossing ages and spanning continents mixing philosophies, history with the tribulations facing the modern world. As Leviathan so succinctly extrapolates on Napoleonic Blues the problems of today continue to be steeped in the past and in history.
Napoleonic Blues opens to the rousing acoustic strum of 'Devil in Detroit', with spirited trumpets and Leviathan's voice bathed in harmonies singing about the ruinous decline of Detroit, once the fabled "motor city" captured in elegant lines such as "a hundred roads to rust". Harking back to the past, the quickened strum of 'Burnt Offerings' evokes the fortitude of Rome, the eternal city. Its impassioned sacrificial words, hastening the impending devastation and destruction - "If I could be your saint, I'd take you down to hell, If I could rebuild Rome, I'd let you watch it burn" - are dressed up cleverly and incongruously as a love song. Leviathan's buoyant vocals and the uplifting nature of Napoleonic Blues mask the heady concerns and themes with which Ostara so eloquently express.
Many of the tracks on Napoleonic Blues adopt the essence of folk ballads, before they swell into more pop oriented passages. 'The Rift' begins with sixties folk tinged acoustic guitar, before opening up with a widescreen pop chorus complete with martial drum rolls while the title track moves from a gentle acoustic ballad, into passages with an uplifting vocal at odds with lyrics that describe a world on an edge, on a suicide mission hurtling towards a world destined to be dust. The continued contrasting of lyrical despondency with more life-affirming melodies is followed on the acoustic 'Red Swan' with its tumbling sing-a-long chorus, "You can break, my heart, Take my life, Take my soul, but you'll never, take me down".
'Blood to Stone' is a sombre diversion where acoustic strum plays over melancholic keys, with Leviathan's sung vocal shadowed by spoken tones, in a sorrowful lament. It's interesting the way in which Leviathan incorporates references into his lyrics. They're never obvious but they're slipped in almost surreptitiously, such as on 'Blood to Stone' with the lines "Thunder calls, to the lightning, and the sun". Lightning and the Sun being of course a book by Savitri Devi. Similarly the opening track 'Devil in Detroit' alludes to the "death's head", an image now synonymous with Death In June.
Listening to Napoleonic Blues it's clear that Ostara have evolved from their neo-folk beginnings into what Leviathan has termed a "hybrid style" but 'Pyre in the Sky' is the one track here that is particularly reminiscent of Strength Through Joy and some of the earlier Ostara material. Leviathan, who has worked with Douglas P., has never hid his admiration for Death In June and you can hear that influence in the cyclical neo-folk strum and the percussive flourishes and textural movements. But it's fair to say that the upbeat vocal delivery and accompanying harmonies push take this into an altogether fresh direction.
The appealing sixties sounding acoustic folk ballad of 'Canaan' seems to concern the disputed territory of Palestine, once home to the Canaanites. Seeking beauty in the midst of chaos, the lyrics draw on a landscape of gardens filled with flowers, orchards and vines, bowing out on an unaccompanied reprise of the chorus. You're unlikely to hear such a damning indictment of fanaticism, and the destruction of ancient shrines, mosques and temples as you will on the catchy acoustic and melodic hook of 'The Caliphate'. And yet not all of Leviathan's ire is aimed towards the extremists. "We are the witness, swiftly going blind" he sings, amply illustrating our ability to lose empathy for the suffering. It's a point that as relevant to our response to the plight of refugees, and the constant demonisation and dehumanisation of various sectors of humanity. 'The Caliphate' also succinctly captures the over-arching theme of Napoleonic Blues in the lines the "roots of the past, we can never escape".
Napoleonic Blues switches from the global to the individual on 'Dark Night of the Soul' where Ostara channel Saint John of the Cross, and his spiritual crisis before his ultimate union with God over fast acoustic strum reminiscent of Changes. Leviathan's unsullied tones meditate on its meaning characterised by a period of personal strife usually in the form of depression as much as they convey the essence of contemporary tribulations and disorder before ascending "high to the night". The final track, 'Black Templar' is sung a cappella, with only the slightest of vocal treatments. Powerfully sung in folk fashion, this track reprised from their earlier Ultima Thule album, closes Napoleonic Blues, like a banishing ritual or perhaps a blackened curse.
Housed in a stunning sleeve etching from the Ukraine based artist Konstantin Antioukhin, Napoleonic Blues is a well-rounded release from Ostara. Leviathan's vision is captured in smooth tones and clear diction amidst rousing strum and acoustic ballads where he continues to evolve his neo-folk roots amidst glorious melodies with added pop aesthetics. Leviathan proves to be a lyricist of the highest order, condensing his vision and insights into something melodic, intelligent and palatable. Ostara still resonate within the neo-folk genre but unlike say Sol Invictus or While Angels Watch who still stem from their post-punk roots, Ostara are marching to a different drum. Napoleonic Blues isn't nostalgia for times past but a reality borne out of a past that continues to exert an influence on events of today. Napoleonic Blues is released on heavyweight vinyl in an edition of 265 copies on Soleilmoon. For more information go to Soleilmoon