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Cautionary Tales - Album Review: Cautionary Tales

16 Aug 2023 // A review by Callum Wagstaff
Cautionary Tales is an alt-rock band based in Aotearoa, via Berlin and New York. It's an art-rock outfit built around the type of myths and legends where somebody gets screwed over for riding a scorpion or not tipping an old lady.

The self-titled debut album draws from contemporary art-rock, Greek myth, modernist poetry, the weirder edges of electronic music, indie pop, and post-punk. I don't know any modernist poetry but I love some of the chords that came out of that gothy side of post-punk so I decided to own my ignorance going in and pretty much take all the lyrics at face

Cautionary Tales have a clear genre mapped out. The first track Axolotl lays out the musical elevator pitch, sporting the
kind of creepy intervals I love, fat and loose bass and tense, stormy guitar complete with a Peter Murphy-esque croon from vocalist Will Marshall. But the musical scope of the album extends beyond its roots in parts, taking inspiration from further afield, like the 8-minute epic, No Funeral Blues, which opens with a synthy syrupy section that sounds like spookier Pink Floyd or artier Terminator music. It wouldn't be out of place in Bowie's Low or a come-down on Nine Inch Nail's The Downward Spiral. No track is more of a departure than Women, which is like a Frankenstein disco.

The whole album is full of deliciously discordant moments and eerie minor chords with beautiful flourishes, particularly on piano parts like that of The Bone Shore, which arpeggiates in a way that somehow sounds like open strings on a guitar. It sings the same melody as the vocals sometimes, creating liberating moments in between the waves of pretty abject melancholy. In grittier sections, like the clashing intervals of the super distorted guitar break on In Every Dream Home a Heartache there's so much sustain and tone that it's a beautifully chaotic, angular and angsty moment.

In that latter track, Marshall's mournful baritone moves through hints of how Bowie's delivery was in Cat People. He sounds strongly reminiscent of Nick Cave on The Bone Shore. His voice always drips with a bitterness. That dank forlornness supports the subject material: Falling and No Funeral Blues seem both about friends dying and death permeates many of the mythological references.
Every song is treated with a certain bleakness, which is exactly how something called Cautionary Tales should be of course.

The Bone Shore
is definitely about dying at the beach on purpose. But it also might have some undercurrent about a proletarian martyrdom or something, I think. Soma meditates about getting old and being dissatisfied with an unexceptional life. In Every Dream Home a Heartache is either about a failed relationship haunting a house or more literally putting a lot of investment into a property only for it to prove a money pit. Or some kind of more morose, spiritual pit.

City Life
, I think, is about feeling shunned by a counterculture you used to be a part of, and Axolotl is about meeting a trust fund baby you didn't like. Only the ritual prayer to the feminine, Women has a little shine to the concept. It's about how Marshall loves women, but his standards are insanely high.

I can't leave out a mention to the noises. Not just the great and strong instrument tones, but the space noises on In Every Dream Home a Heartache and the way the bass chimes like a bell toll. The waves on The Bone Shore are just distant and unclear enough that they could be a dryer, a baby's white noise machine or a TV on the fritz. Falling has a warm tape-like warble. Also, a shoutout to the spoken word at the beginning of No Funeral Blues and the phrase "Disposable Darling". These are all little affects that gave me a little pop of joy.

Cautionary Tales has a strong thesis it delivers on, a clear motif and an emotional through-line that isn't a defined arc but more of a well-defined theme. It's not a vehicle, it's more of an installation. It's a rich, brittle, lamentation that moves from chic dissatisfaction to resigned despair.

The tones are excellently executed, swelling all-consumingly. The notes are chosen carefully to create thousands of dynamic little heartbreaks. It's a lush and deeply satisfying listen, and by the end, it feels like looking back on a life spent battling for true relevance at every turn and not being sure if you won.

About Cautionary Tales

Cautionary Tales is an experimental art-rock collective, based in Berlin via Aotearoa and NYC. Fronted by Will Marshall, a songwriter with a swaggering baritone, Cautionary Tales work with a palette borrowed from contemporary art-rock, Greek myth, modernist poetry, the weirder edges of electronic music, indie pop and post-punk.

The phrase “cautionary tales” describes one of the fundamental types of story-telling; the story that tells us “what not to do”. With roots in folklore and myth, these stories are found in everything from fables, to epic Greek poetry, to modern horror films, exploring the myriad ways life can go terribly or comically wrong.

Rooting their story-telling in this ancient form, Cautionary Tales' debut is a surrealist blend of disparate musical influences. Often spacious and sometimes bitingly aggressive, they move seamlessly between post-rock compositions, tight garage-rock grooves, and deep trip-hop, painting vivid backdrops to Will’s blackly comic narratives.

Visit the muzic.net.nz Profile for Cautionary Tales


Cautionary Tales
Year: 2023
Type: Album

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