Duke Garwood offers apocalypse music for a troubled world

The somnabulistic pace of Duke Garwood's seventh record, Garden Of Ashes, belies its slow-burning prowess.
The somnabulistic pace of Duke Garwood's seventh record, Garden Of Ashes, belies its slow-burning prowess.PHOTO: HEAVENLY

When it comes to capturing the zeitgeist of the world, one could either get stoked by the protest songs of Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen and Neil Young, or wallow in the swamp blues of iconoclasts such as Nick Cave and Tom Waits.

Here is where an unlikely candidate comes in: a 47-year-old Englishman called Duke Garwood.

A collaborator of the grunged-up blues hero Mark Lanegan, the Londoner is almost a doppelganger for his American counterpart, but it does not take away anything from his seventh record, Garden Of Ashes (which does feature Lanegan).

Its somnabulistic pace belies its slow-burning prowess. Garwood describes the album as "beautiful apocalypse love music" and "a stare down to the beast of hate trying to take over our garden".



    Duke Garwood


    4/5 stars

Fittingly, it sounds like one could walk through its 3D cinema, awestruck at the desert of burnt-out Joshua trees, lonesome tumbleweed and assorted unseen creatures scuttling at the periphery of one's vision. It touches on the de rigueur blues cliches, but makes them vivid by sheer conviction.

This is a world afflicted, but Garwood evinces both light and darkness, good and evil, in its mortal coil. The night begins with Coldblooded, a jeremiad on the state of corruption and decay. He is hinting at something "good gone bad", as a female chorus called The Smoke Fairies, possibly cribbed from Leonard Cohen, coos in the background. Electric-guitar riffs hang in the air and the percussion shuffles like slinky coyotes.

In Sonny Boogie, he intones, "It's like the sun moved to a better world," echoed by the said chorus, as the guitars braid around his baritone.

Sleep is the tenderest ballad, with the musician playing the beauty in the beast. He is cooing a child, or a lover, to slumber, promising "to brush the night right from hair", repeating "baby, sleep". His voice cracks a bit and sounds even vulnerable, as if grasping the tethers of sanity in the face of destruction.

By the time one comes to the title track, perched perfectly in the middle of the tracklisting, a sense of unease has crept in. Lulled, the listener is slowly unnerved by the unusual, off-kilter arrangement - guitars that do not get into a groove, drums that come and go, strings that tease, and a bassline floating along like incense.

The only constant is the singer's nicotine croon, as he exhorts: "Come take a walk with me, through the ashes of this garden/Too beautiful to see." Is he a saviour, or a Grim Reaper? You don't care by now.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 15, 2017, with the headline 'Apocalypse music for a troubled world'. Print Edition | Subscribe