The Mortal Prophets
Me and the Devil
4 out of 5 stars
Anyone having trouble getting to, or staying, asleep should proceed with caution when playing The Mortal Prophets’ debut album around bedtime. The band, actually frontman/singer/songwriter John Beckmann and some hired hands, craft a dark, portentous, and sure, nightmarish audio intensity guaranteed to send chills through listeners and interrupt almost anyone’s idea of a restful evening.
Which is the point.
The followup to Beckmann/The Mortal Prophet’s July 2022 EP, correspondingly called Stomp the Devil, appears four months later. It maintains and enhances the creepy, unsettling style, heightened by ex-Captain Beefheart guitarist Gary Lucas, displayed on the EP’s five tracks. The blueprint for these ten songs has Beckmann digging back, way back, into the dusky Americana catalog. He transforms traditional and generally well-known blues and gospel standards that already exuded ominous overtones, by infusing additional dread into them. Imagine a mash-up between Nick Cave and Morphine (whose saxist, Dana Colley, contributes to a song) and you’re close to the gloom and danger Beckmann conjures here.
The intentions are instantly clear. Two Robert Johnson covers—the title track and “Crossroads”—find a seemingly possessed Beckmann moaning and elongating the words while swamp beats of the former, and sparsely skulking electronics of the latter, create a more imposing and lurid vision than arguably any other cover of these dusky relics.
Beckmann seems to be channeling the spirits of the dead as he transforms words we’ve heard many times before into concepts that feel doomy and often violent. The lyrics of Big Joe Williams’ “Baby Please Don’t Go” morph from pleading to challenging and even threatening just by the singer’s gravelly tone and the evil manner in which they are delivered. Son House’s “Death Letter,” describing the protagonist reading of his ex-lover’s demise, was never the most uplifting song. But accompanied by stripped-down slide guitar and a booming bass undercurrent, it’s even more morbid and upsetting as Beckmann intones I didn’t know I loved her until I let her down over eerie, dramatic acoustic guitars.
And wait’ll you hear him growl the opening to “Jesus is Coming,” a cheery song about the Spanish flu of 1918, originally written and performed by Blind Willie Johnson (Cowboy Junkies also did a searing take on it), where Beckmann transforms the hopeful title into something anxious and intimidating.
Two duets with female singer Aoibheann Carey-Philpott bring another voice to the program. The closing gospel gem “Lord I’m the True Vine” has Beckmann writhing and crawling around Carey-Philpott’s double-tracked vocals, as she sings I am wrapped up, tied up, and tangled up, I am saved with a made up mind as percussion clangs behind the twosome. Even with resilient lyrics, the tension and release coincide with the rest of the album’s more desperate pieces.
The demonic intentions implied by the album’s name and defined by Beckmann, along with Irish producer/mixer/multi-instrumentalist William Declan Lucey’s, unorthodox approach coils each selection in menacing directions, bringing fresh, often frightening twists to these standards.
Be aware of when you engulf yourself in these riveting, uncompromising performances. They are not for the squeamish.