Ravenna Woods released Valley of the Headless Men earlier this year. It was a highly anticipated EP following their 2010 LP, Demons and Lakes. One might think by their album titles they have a hankering for darkness—that’s a correct assumption.
Ravenna Woods are something of an anarchist freedom-fighting band in their own right. Chris Cunningham, the principal songwriter, guitar player and singer, spent some time in the Marshal Islands. The things he saw, learned, experienced have been making their way into the writing of this project. Songs such as “Demons and Lakes,” the title track of their debut LP, are a thumbing of the nose to all the upper middle class who have no concept of what it really means to struggle. “Ghosts” on the other hand sings out for all the muffled voices whose lives have been expendable as paper in the Third World. With such strong songs as these, one could only wonder what Valley of the Headless Men had in store.
Musically Ravenna Woods has already laid the foundation of having technical minds for music with a keen interest in melodic structures. Their sound is comprised of an acoustic guitar, two floor tom drums, a high hat, a xylophone, mandolin, sleigh bells, some shakers, tambourine, and three powerful voices. Cunningham listened to a lot of math-rock in the early 2000s. A main component of that type of music is progression. A band would dangle an amazing riff only for it never to be played again. Fancy finger work and tapping morphed from the cheesy hair-metal style into a contemporary creation. Those influences found their way into a unique form of guitar composition on Demons and Lakes. Chris took the fingerstyle that folk rockers aspire to create and the math-rock techniques to make what we now call hardcore-acoustic.
The compositional skill on Valley of the Headless Men has been stepped up in a way no one could have predicted. From the first few notes in “Dark Fields,” the guitar tapping, pull offs, and staccato, percussive picking grows legs and topples around like a lanky marionette. Clap, clap, clap go the hands providing a backbone for the evolving pace. What lie in these dark fields? “Psychopathic animals with human masks and deadened souls” according to Ravenna Woods. The two-minute and five-second song lays the foundation of an album that scowls in the face commercialism and those who profit by walking on the backs of the less fortunate, using he the helpless to fight their wars.
“We Want it All” is a song for those who live from hand to mouth. Starting off with a vigorous hammering of six strings, Cunningham sets the tone of relentless impatience: “We want it all, we want it now, and anyone who get’s in our way won’t stand a chance. We don’t care if we have to lie, steal, cheat, we’re going to get whatever we can get our hands on.” Thankfully their lyrics are more eloquent then the aforementioned interpretation. “We Want it All” demonstrates the effects that an impoverished society can have on people who are just trying to survive.
“Graves” is an evil waltz danced by the wealthy; the wealthy that finance their wars on the backs of the less fortunate used to fight them. Max Barsana made a stop-motion animated video that shows a grave robber stealing the souls of dead soldiers, manufacturing new bodies on an assembly line, infusing those soldiers with the souls of the dead, and sending them off to fight. Seeing these poor, lifeless figurines shooting, stabbing, blowing each other up is heartbreaking. The level of fiction in this song is up for interpretation.
The thing you need to know about Ravenna Woods is that even if their songs were about a bunch of hooha, the music is intricate and fascinating enough to make for a top-notch listen. “Tides” is the perfect example of that with its trickling minor progression on the guitar, three-part vocal harmony, and a fingerstyle/math bridge that would leave any listener’s mouth ajar. However, no song of Ravenna Woods’ is about a bunch of hooha, least of all “Tides.” This song has some vague lyrics to start, but the blatant references to the oil spill towards the end clear up any ambiguities.
“World of Color,” is the most personal song on the album. Last year, one of Chris Cunningham’s dear friends took his own life. The friend’s mother shared the departed’s journal with Chris, and he took an excerpt in his loving memory: “I awoke to a world of color/ I awoke to a world of color/ I was on a boat/ that was drifting down a river/ stars were clear in the dark/ and I/ was asleep/ for a minute just before waking up/ for a minute just before waking up/ for a minute just before waking up/ for a minute just before waking up/ I awoke to a world of color.” Haunting lyrics indeed. Ravenna Woods brings in Jacob Anderson of Hey Marseilles to guest on violin making this one of the most chilling, memorable songs of the album.
The album progresses with “West.” Although meaningful lyrically, this song’s musical restfulness is what stands out. If for no other reason that the proceeding songs are so exhausting, it’s nice to snuggle up in the soothing vocals and relaxing guitar melody.
Ravenna Woods doesn’t let us relax for long; “Headless Men” follows “West,” and it is the hardest hitting song on the entire record. Cunningham pairs tapping pull offs with harmonics in mind-bending, sonic ways. They flutter. The notes flutter. Matt Badger shows off his creative prowess along with his ability to use restraint; the quietest of harmonics on guitar aren’t overpowered by his heaviest drumbeats. These two elements together create dust and smoke like a cyclone in a sand storm. Brantley Duke marries the xylophone and baby piano well with the many parts of the song. The crescendos on this song mark the pinnacle of the record, and the anthem of “Headless Men” is the most anthemic. “This is not my home/ this is not my home.”
Valley of the Headless Men ends with “One Fall.” This ending reveals a little bit more about the band; it isn’t a showoff song, they don’t leave the listener with a feeling of triumph or the Amarican-esque happy ending that we expect from a blockbuster film. Rather, the lyrics ring “I was one soul, in one world, that’s all/ I had one chance, one fall, that’s all.” The album lies down in its final resting place with piano, mandolin, and the stark pound of a defeated drum. Brilliant.
Ravenna Woods took a big risk with such a bold follow up record to the well-received Demons and Lakes. Their debut EP toted the line with having substance matched with accessibility, technique matched with broad appeal. Valley of the Headless Men is a full representation of what the band is all about; they didn’t pull a single punch. It’s clear that they took their time refining their available catalogue, choosing which songs would make the cut for their sophomore effort. Any who take the time to explore this album will be duly rewarded.