Rick Miller - Heart of Darkness as reviewed on The Phantom Tollbooth Heart of Darkness is a spooky, dark, and melancholic concept album with lots of fantastical elements. There's guilt here and regret – dregs of human emotion which ensnare and debilitate, and ultimately provide the fuel for the bitter love story which unfolds.

Heart of Darkness
Artist: Rick Miller
Label: independent
Time: 5 tracks / 42:00 minutes

While I was in college, Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness was one of my favorite texts. The book was based on the conviction that the deepest levels of consciousness in the heart of man are full of nothing but darkness. In this manner, the specific physical location of the story (the Congo River – or the jungles of Vietnam in Coppola's Apocalypse Now, the loosely based film adaptation) becomes less a setting than a backdrop, because the primitive stage of all human interaction is ultimately informed by that black, hidden place of man's desires. Forgive me my English nerd moment, but that understanding is somewhat useful in approaching Rick Miller's 2014 album of the same title. Heart of Darkness is a spooky, dark, and melancholic concept album with lots of fantastical elements. There's guilt here and regret – dregs of human emotion which ensnare and debilitate, and ultimately provide the fuel for the bitter love story which unfolds.

As a whole, the album feels very organic, even with electric guitar and keyboard thrown into the mix, partially because there's very little drum work: the rhythmic sections are instead accomplished via sparse hand percussion – afuche/cabasa, shakers, bongos, djembe. A full kit makes brief appearances throughout the album, most noticeably on "Blood of the Rose," but remains largely absent otherwise. Accompanied by whimsical flute and strings, the general timbre of Heart of Darkness is that of a tribal ceremony, evoking an enshrouding aura of mystery. Music and lyrics together channel elements of oral storytelling tradition, legend, and fairytale. I'll describe the story which transpires as I understand it, but Rick's lyrics are anything but cut-and-dried: there are enough hints to piece together a rough plot, but aspects of it are left entirely to the listener's interpretation.

The title track, "Heart of Darkness," begins majestically with a broad, orchestral entrance. Wailing guitar gradually fades to dark, rhythmic ambiance as Rick begins singing. This early tonality and the beginning threads of the sorrow-filled romance will meander through the album's lyrics and narrated sections. The speaker's story begins with his lament of the falling night – a lament mixed with bittersweet gratitude, as we will see, because the darkness he hates is also the vehicle for visitation from his lost, ghostly lover. This torture he undergoes, this perpetual night, helps "turn the wrong into right" – penance for some sin committed years before. Dark and troubled, "Heart of Darkness" is the perfect introduction to the journey upon which we are about to embark.

"Blood of the Rose," opening with lush acoustic guitar, flute, and chimes, begins the painful reminiscing process. The protagonist remembers the time – now a thousand years past – when he wore his lady's colors and served both her and the king, her husband, with full-fledged loyalty. His sworn fealty is the boast of his honorable character. And yet he is willing to trade "all worldly worth for this: to waste his whole heart in one kiss on her perfect lips." Here, the story borrows a bit from Excalibur (John Boorman, 1981), and we can think of man and woman as Lancelot and Guinevere, their forbidden love bringing the "castle walls... crashing down / lost to those who betray." The culpability the protagonist bears for taking what wasn't his is the chain which binds him, fating him to banishment, and an eternity of being haunted by the ghost of the woman whose heart he stole but could not possess. The "shattered blade," once the mark of his loyalty, cannot save him. He "longs to see the golden dawn" break – an opportunity for him to fulfill his broken oath to the king and bring his torment to an end. Yet, there is succor in the darkness, because he can conceal and relish the sin he still bears. Both the flute and the electric guitar work on this track are fantastic: bitter and mournful but tragically melodic, restrained but poignant. "Blood of the Rose" is also the first track on the album to feature spoken narration, in poetic form, which lends some clarity to the details of the story. In this manner, the narrative unfolds, accompanied by keyboard strings and a backdrop of breathy vocal harmonies.

"Castle Walls" maintains the mournful narrative, detailing the protagonist's ongoing entrapment. He hides away deep within his castle, "drawn to the dark when light is all around," because the daylight "burns through his soul," indicative of the maddening guilt which he continues to carry in his ongoing descent into darkness. Beginning with soft acoustic guitar and cello, the track possesses certain lullaby qualities before opening up into a ballad with symphonic strings and broad vocal harmonies. The shortest track on the album, "Castle Walls" is sparse in terms of the number of instruments involved, but a vibrant showcase of Rick's vocals and guitar work.

If "Castle Walls" was comparatively lighthearted to the rest of the album, the entrance of "The Dark Lady" is a return to earlier sentiment. Grim and foreboding, the tribal hand percussion and wailing electric guitar return to introduce this track. Drums return as well, with bass tensely emphasizing the first two beats of a swaying 6/8 groove. Female vocals add a dynamic change as well, not articulating any lyrics but providing a sensual, wordless characterization of this ghostly woman – the not-quite-tangible embodiment of the protagonist's desire. Toward the conclusion of "The Dark Lady," the longest track on the album, we suddenly come to realize that this ghostly woman, the shadow of the lady to whom the protagonist once swore allegiance, is just as entrapped as he is: "Living in a dream / No one can hear her scream." The betrayal which enslaved them both was a sin of commission, after all. Both were implicit, and so both must pay the price. The "loaded dice" which they roll can only have one outcome. Just before the thunder rumbles and the soft piano enters, there's a fantastic lyric to describe the protagonist's predicament: "As the darkness falls / Through the earth he crawls / Rising from the grave / One less soul to save." The image is that of a man desperately dragging himself out of a shallow grave, in which he has been buried alive, seeking the redemption that has eluded him for so long. After a cacophonous breakdown, a Pink Floyd-esque bass line takes center stage, and the track concludes with six minutes of instrumental music: swirling sounds, the tolling of a bell, spoken words echoing through the jumble of echoing guitar, bass, and keys. Lyrics, delivered softly over a piano and cello reprise of an earlier melody, interrupt before the final guitar solo. Meandering flute, cello, and inarticulate vocals hedge the final seconds of this track.

"Come Summer, She Died" is the concluding song of this mysterious undertaking. The softly plucked acoustic guitar is reminiscent of "Castle Walls," joined this time by drums and thick string sections. More electric guitar work here, melancholic and releasing, evidences the possibility of redemption for the protagonist – though the last words he speaks are the bitter knowledge that "time is no longer on my side / If I cannot be with you." A beautiful guitar solo comprises the album's outro, a nonverbal conclusion to a journey which might possibly not have an ending.

Joseph Conrad tackled the issue of humanity's dark potential in Heart of Darkness – the madness that exists within, despite external reservations and morality. In this album of the same title, Rick Miller does the same, albeit under the guise of curses, fantasy, and forbidden romance. The universal truth is that we all bury our wants, our passions. We lose sight of the light and cling to the darkness. We desire what we shouldn't and bend our own morals in order to obtain it. There's a bit of that tendency in everyone. Rick Miller's Heart of Darkness concludes without resolution for the man haunted by his own ineptitude and infidelity, the man whose "eyes refuse to see," but also with the implied reminder that hope is available to those who are truly willing to seek it.

Justin Carlton