My taste in music is a bit scattered. If I had to guess, I’d say that’s partly due to the fact that I’ll listen happily to just about anything, but I like to live with a genre for a long time before absorbing a new one into my regular rotation. My main musical gaps feature the various branches of folk. I’ve been meaning to change that for years now, but I constantly put it off for one reason or another. When I saw a folk metal album drop in our bin, I figured, “why not start now?” Hence, Morgan Rider and the Deep Dark River‘s debut record Leviathan and the Deep Dark Blue. No expectations. No assumptions. Just me, embarking on a voyage into uncharted waters.
When I say this is MRatDDR‘s debut record, I do not mean to imply this is Morgan Rider’s first foray in the musical realm. The Canadian multi-instrumentalist participated in numerous past projects, played live for years both as part of those projects and as a solo artist, and has even had his music licensed for various purposes. Needless to say, the man has experience. For this endeavor he performs as vocalist, guitarist (lead, bass and slide), keyboardist, pianist and percussionist. Joining him are Nathen Morrison on the cello and Ty Burt on mandolin. Together they craft mournful folk rock that blends elements of soul and blues, and at times just a touch of post-rock (“The Seafarers”). The end result is beautiful and affecting, resonant on a deep emotional plane.
The blunt riffs to which I’ve become accustomed are nonexistent. In their stead melodious strumming and contemplative leads populate the instrumentation. Cello plays the main support character in this group, and without it Leviathan would lose at least a full third of its spirit. “Ignite the Tempests” and “When the Waves are Stilled” represent stellar examples of this phenomenon, with the cello marvelously complementing the bluesy swagger of the former and solidifying the contemplative character of the latter. The piano and synth work also fills an important role, moving my heart through “Dread” and “Beneath the Crushing Tides” with all of the tenderness I could ever want from a single piece of music. In this way, the album is an unqualified success.
So what’s the catch? For me, it’s the vocals and the mixing. Morgan has a soulful croon, heavily weighted towards personality as opposed to technical proficiency. However, the vocals feel at odds with the music supporting them for the first half of the record, whereas all elements mesh successfully with the vocals in the back half. It’s a bizarre experience considering that, thematically, the album feels cohesive. Even when Morgan’s tones themselves don’t put me off, the mix puts him right in my face at all times, distracting me from the gorgeous arrangements behind him. One way or another, I lose some measure of immersion.
As if to further highlight the issue, my promo came with an acoustic rendition of every song proper, and every single one is far and away the superior variant. In fact, I like the unplugged songs so much more than the electrified versions that I assigned two scores at the bottom of this review. Not only is the mix balanced and full there, but the vocals also feel completely natural and engaging throughout. As a result, the impact of the record in its amp-less form trounces that of the amplified package.
I essentially have two records in front of me. One—the electrified iteration—is likely what most will hear when they search for samples of Leviathan and the Deep Dark Blue. The other is the preferable acoustic option. If Morgan Rider and the Deep Dark River do the smart thing and offer the latter edition as a separate disc or download, grab it on the spot. Audiences should find it a thoughtful, immaculately detailed journey brimming with emotion and substance. Otherwise, prepare for an album with abundant potential and a few glaring flaws. Or, buy the combined collection from the Bandcamp link below and go from there. The choice is yours.
Ratings: 2.5/5.0 (Electric) | 3.5/5.0 (Acoustic)
DR: 6 (Electric) | 11 (Acoustic) | Format Reviewed: 320 kbps mp3
Labels: North Soul Records
Websites: morganridermusic.bandcamp.com | facebook.com/deepdarkriver
Releases Worldwide: November 22nd, 2019