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Thank [fill in deity of your choice] for Sam Rosenthal. As songwriter, soundscaper and label owner, he’s kept his band Black Tape For a Blue Girl running for thirty-five years now, enjoying moments of both great renown and borderline obscurity, but never backing down from his vision. Though long associated with the goth scene (a designation he’s embraced, if stood slightly to the side of), in truth BTFABG doesn’t sit comfortably in any chair but one marked “director.” Rosenthal’s aesthetic is personal both in conception and content, staking out his own path regardless of trends or fashion, and always deeply emotional. He creates some of the purest self-expression on the planet.
That’s as true of his latest album The Cleft Serpent as on any of his records. Joined by new bandmates Jon DeRosa on vocals and Henrik Meierkord on cello (is this the first time he’s not had female bandmates?), Rosenthal paints an elegant, if somber, landscape with carefully deployed keyboards and electronics, eschewing percussion. Drawing more – far more – from string quartets, minimalism and art song than the gothic rock and darkwave with which the band is associated, the songs drift like leaves on the surface of a lake – colorful, hypnotic, and once you turn your attention to them you can’t shift it until they float out of sight. That suits the lyrics, which dwell on what sounds like a star-crossed, perhaps even toxic, love – doomed to be shattered, life after life, by the interference of dark forces. “The Trickster” and the title track make it clear that something or someone won’t let these lovers rest, no matter what time period they find themselves in. By the time we get to “So Tired of Our History” and the emotionally depleted “I’m the One Who Loses,” we’re nearly as spiritually exhausted as the protagonists.
This is the kind of music that could become overbearing in the wrong hands, a gloom-soaked ride to nowhere. But Rosenthal always drives his despairing themes with genuine emotional power, never toppling into melodrama or misery porn. The spell is especially potent this time out thanks to the right collaborators – Meierkord’s cello adds ethereal textures that give the music depth, while DeRosa sings everything with a perfect balance of heart-on-sleeve expression and a stately dignity. “Why do we fight and love and die?” he croons matter-of-factly in “To Touch the Milky Way,” clearly already knowing the answer. With these artistic partners, Rosenthal has with The Cleft Serpent created yet another thoughtfully arranged and undeniably heartfelt meditation on the futile search for love, and why it’s worth pursuing anyway.
A limited edition second disk of instrumental versions, demos, outtakes and alternate mixes is also available.
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