Murder By Death is not a metal band.
We were running late. It was a long day of driving. We took the wrong highway and ended up crossing five mountains, unintentionally. It was hours of sidewinding, hairpin turns. The 20-foot camper in tow seemed like it was always about to jut off the road. It felt like the van was taking turns much faster than it should have.
Our fearless leader drove like a maniac. I loved it. It’s not an adventure without some danger.
After parking, we hustled up the hill at 6:55 p.m., practically giddy. Four little kids on a field trip, trapped in the aging bodies of functioning adults. Once at the top of the hill, we had another quarter of a mile to the cave opening. There was barely any cellphone signal. The sun was fading and the woods breathed deeply in all directions. A blast of cold air hit us. The entrance to the cave was near.
We broached the mouth. Everyone was already waiting inside. It was another couple of minutes or so through the cave, surrounded by stalactites and random non-functioning moonshine stills. Hidden lights set the cave walls awash in shades of tan. Guides on golf carts made sure we didn’t get lost.
Around the final corner, the path dropped nearly straight down as the passageway opened into a vast, shadowy space where the corners rounded and the edges were jagged. Cavernous is the word. A giant chandelier hung out of place from the pockmarked rock roof.
There were about 500 people waiting. It was awe-inspiring to walk into that space. We were Cousteau’s kin. We had discovered an arena deep inside the Earth. They call it the Volcano Room. It was standing room only, and a very comfortable 55 or so degrees.
As we walked down the steep passageway into the bottom floor, taking in the surroundings, we passed Murder By Death as they made their way to the stage. We were just in time.
For their eighth studio album, Murder By Death, known for destination shows that include an annual stint at the Stanley Hotel (yeah, the hotel that inspired Stephen King’s “The Shining”), initiated a Kickstarter fund, which they have done for their albums since 2012’s “Bitter Drink, Bitter Moon.” The starter package was a 100 bones. For that you got a ticket to the show at Cumberland Caverns in Tennessee and the new album, “The Other Shore,” on vinyl. Worth every penny. The packages went up from there and included special posters, T-shirts, and downloads.
They raised over $300,000. It was so successful, they added free downloads to all packages — a batch of songs frontman Adam Turla wrote for his dog — and other freebies.
The thing about a destination show is that everyone there traveled to see the band. No one stumbled into this music venue on accident. In fact, you couldn’t even find this place without proper directions. We were in the middle of nowhere in middle Tennessee with hundreds of other die-hard fans, ready for a unique chance to see one of the best live acts working today. In a cave, a deep cavern carved out by water and lava, more than 300 feet below the sky, buried in a moment. That is not an experience you soon forget.
It was special. The fans knew it. The band knew it. They played deep cuts, everyone’s favorites and new tracks for two solid hours with an encore that included two of my favorites, “I Came Around” and “Until Morale Improves The Beatings Will Continue.”
Everyone sang along. We cheered loudly for every song. Fans up close traded barbs with Turla. One guy even changed a string on Turla’s guitar. I was as enamored by the event space as the band, a rare combination that enveloped the senses. I took long pulls from a flask — a fancy rye. Whiskey goes best with Murder By Death, because whiskey is a frequent guest in Murder By Death songs.
THE WHISKEY CLUB
Over the last 18 years, Murder By Death (again, not a metal band) has carved out a cult following behind a relentless touring schedule. They’ve grown from 100-person capacity clubs to packing 500- to 1,500-seat venues. They aren’t famous by any measure of the music industry and you probably won’t hear their music on the radio, which makes being a fan a little more special.
It’s a whiskey cult. A secret club that meets in haunted hotels, caves, and in Savannah, always at The Jinx. Even though they’ve outgrown our most storied rock ’n’ roll club, they still return to play every now and again. It’s one of their favorite venues. With the exception of Baroness and Black Tusk, they are a rare band that will play The Jinx only for the enjoyment and connection to it, not because they have to. They don’t.
That down-to-earth sensibility is one of the attributes that makes Murder By Death such a great band to be a fan of. How you conduct yourself as a human, outside of being a musician or an artist of any kind, matters. It matters a great deal. Integrity. Humility. Honesty. These things matter, even if you’re a rock star. Perhaps, especially if you are.
In one of his between-song anecdotes, Turla mentioned that he and bassist Tyler Morse were heading home after the two cave shows to hand pack the vinyl packages to send to fans. The album is being released on Bloodshot Records, a reputable mid-sized independent record label out of Chicago. These aren’t kids in a completely unknown punk rock band. They are professionals who make a living from their art. Murder By Death is a hard-working band, in every sense of the phrase.
It seems the best music being made today comes from the artists who care the most about making a good product and the least about making a buck, which makes the 100 bucks I spent seem valued. I worked hard for that money. I’d rather it not end up as pocket change for a rich executive.
THE OTHER SHORE
“The Other Shore,” a space Western opera, rips, sulks and seeps with beauty, ghosts and glory. Turla likes writing albums like long-form narratives.
From the opening farewell of “Alas,” to the final rings of Sarah Balliet’s cello on the “Last Night of Earth,” Murder By Death paints a picture of a love story that plays like a novel in poem form.
If someone failed to mentioned the concept of the album, however, it wouldn’t be immediately obvious. There is no heavy mention of space travel or alien worlds, but rather, Turla focuses on the emotions surrounding pinpointed moments on the journey of a man looking for his love, a dying Earth, and an adventure. The concept is more about human connection than space, with the latter merely acting as the story’s vehicle.
One thing Murder By Death excels at is the ability to draw from so many places musically at once. Rooted in the storytelling of country and American folk music, with a healthy mix of rock influence that ranges from Bowie to The Smiths, and a tinge of pop and punk, they create something entirely original. Turla’s baritone imbues the album with storyteller comfort, a welcoming aura. Balliet’s cello, as it always has, dances in and out around Turla throughout the album, creating a beautiful balance of lead vocals between the couple. While Turla and Balliet comprise the heart of the band, it’s important to note that Morse, Dagan Thogerson (drums) and David Fountain (multiple instruments) paint the rest of the music with such vibrant colors, Turla’s songs would be half as powerful without them.
Murder By Death always delivers an honest product. It’s honest music made by honest, hard-working musicians. And that is what you get on “The Other Shore” — honest, heartfelt songs. It also happens to be one of their most beautiful albums to date.
For a band that has literally toured the States hundreds of times over the last two decades, they know about taking a journey. They know about dangerous corners and driving fast. They know about mountain passageways and getting stuck in parking lots. (Yes, we got stuck in a parking lot the day after the show. My fault.)
Murder By Death understands what it’s like to long for another place, and to be separated from the ones they love. They’ve put in their time on the road. The emotional core of “The Other Shore” undoubtedly stems from those experiences, and it’s as visceral as our journey to that cave was.
Joshua Peacock is the arts and entertainment features writer for Do Savannah and Savannah Morning News. Empire of Sound has won multiple Georgia Press Association awards. Contact him at email@example.com.