Right then, grab yourself a coffee, or a glass of your favourite tipple, ’cause this is going to be a long one…
This has to be my most hotly anticipated album for 2022, following Kaprekar’s Constant’s exceptional musical work of art Depth of Field in 2019. Already fêted as a band that composes “epoch-making masterpiece(s) … that could have been an offspring of Genesis in 1976”, Kaprekar’s Constant have set themselves an exceptionally high bar, particularly having been previously nominated as Best Newcomer in the illustrious Prog Magazine. Have they achieved it again with this year’s The Murder Wall? They sure have!
This is as close as one gets to a symphonic progressive concept album without it being one; that’s a great thing because, let’s face it, concept albums are a bit ’70s, aren’t they? What we have here is an underlying theme of that magnificent mountain, the Eiger. Co-writer and bass player Nick Jefferson explains: “We’d spoken about writing and recording an album inspired by the landscape and the spirit of adventure and heroism of some of the mountaineers who have attempted to climb the North Face.”
This is snapshot storytelling of six of the attempts to scale the Eiger’s North Face; the trials and tribulations, exceptional courage, bravery and determination, and the ensuing tragedies and victories. I can assure you, it brings tears to one’s eyes. So why The Murder Wall? The Eiger’s North Face carries the German name of ‘Nordwand’ (literally ‘North Wall’), which has morphed into ‘Mordwand’ (‘The Murder Wall’), due to the loss of at least 64 climbers since 1935. Despite the tragedies, the stories have a certain romanticism and derring-do about them; everyone loves a story about bravery, spunk, and the perceived unattainable, don’t they? This story is nothing like that expressed in the 1975 thriller film The Eiger Sanction with typical Clint Eastwood quips such as “Don’t call me Pal, Buddy or Sweetheart…” before some unsuspecting hood gets laid out with a broken nose. It’s more like the exceptional ‘must watch’ 2008 German film Nordwand which chronicles the tragic 1936 attempt by Kurz and Hinsterstoisser, a story which features significantly on this album. There is some genius lyric writing that goes to the root of many of these emotional stories:
This is not pretentious stuff; these lyrics paint the perfect picture against a backdrop of crafted musicianship.
So, what of the music? Somewhat different to their first two albums, but with trademark Kaprekar’s Constant all over it. The vocal combination of Dorie Jackson and Bill Jefferson is a unique blend of beauty and urgency, David Jackson (of Van der Graaf Generator fame) features on every track, and the wonderful Judie Tzuke makes a guest appearance on Years to Perfect. There are flutes, sax, mandolin, keys, all the guitars you could wish for, and it comes with (literally) all the bells and whistles. The scene is set with opener Prologue and a main theme Hall of Mirrors, with Dorie and Bill trading lead vocals, whilst the remainder of the band build instrumentals. Reference is made to Charles Barrington, the Irishman who first ascended to the top of the Eiger in 1858 with Christian Almer and Peter Bohren, albeit by a less challenging West Flank route; but the challenge of the North Face was thereafter set. The main theme instrumental is uplifting and catchy, with David Jackson’s sax and the rhythm section giving the impression of excitement and that all will be well. Little did they know… It’s a beautiful and inspiring first couple of tracks.
Welcome to the first story: the 1935 attempt by Mehringer and Sedlmayer, and the song Tall Tales by Firelight. It’s signature KC music, traded vocals, flutes, whistles, sax and guitar solos abound before an abrupt halt to a 12-string close. It’s an appropriate mood change and a first indication that all would not be well; Mehringer and Sedlmayer didn’t make it, perishing in the attempt.
The second story focuses on the 1936 attempt by Bavarians Kurz and Hinsterstoisser and Austrians Angerer and Rainer. This is a suite of four carefully sequenced songs telling of the trials of these four brave men; it might even become known as the ‘Kurz-Hinterstoisser Suite’? One can sense the mountaineers nerves as Failure Takes Care of its Own commences with haunting winds, an endearing piano solo supplemented by Dorie’s truly beautiful vocals. It is a positive yet slow-paced tune, filled with anticipation and hopes of success: “Hope sees us riding the Foehn Winds home”. A very clever lyric and I’ll leave you to google that… The song segues into Another Man’s Smile, where Bill takes the vocal lead with some lovely understated acoustic guitar. It’s almost anthemic in parts, held together with tight percussion, a smattering of horns as the tune gets into a steady and enriching rhythm. One finds out quite early the fate of this climbing team, with lyrics such as “The story still outweighs, The Lives it stole that day, The stuff of legend told, of Men who won’t grow old”. The main theme changes to a darker cinematic mood on piano before the next segue into Years to Perfect, a beautiful bass line before Judie Tzuke’s vocals; it’s a short two-and-a-half minute section and I yearn for it to be longer. The final part to the story is Hope in Hell; one knows the tragic outcome by now, but lyrics like “But the world won’t allow us any dignity in hope, He didn’t call the hangman, All he needed was a rope. The man wore his bravery like a label in his coat. He didn’t need the hangman, All he asked for was his rope, Seems like hope in hell has gone” make the story no less raw and poignant. Watch the German film and all will become clear… But this is neither a sad song nor one expressing the futility of the mountaineers’ efforts; the purity of Dorie’s vocal expresses a scene of resignation, almost inevitability, to one’s fate.
Crikey, depressing stuff… But no, the tide turns. Victorious says it all; the 1938 story of Harrer, Kasparek, Heckmair and Vorg. Despite awful storms which threatened the same fate as the 1936 attempt, the North Wall is conquered. This is the band’s first single, a combination of full-on band melodic prog instrumentals, a key change with delicate 12-string and flute and Bill and Dorie’s vocals. There is a lovely keyboard mid-section, plenty of sax, a great depth and breadth of instruments before finishing with an electric guitar solo. Hurrah, we can breathe a sigh of relief again, before an immediate fade into the quaint and folky The Rain Shadow; akin to something one might hear on Anthony Phillips’ The Geese and the Ghost, it’s a delicious end to the story.
Third Man Down is probably the most prog purist track on the album; two-and-a-half minutes of symphonic keys, piano solos and electric guitar before the vocals take centre stage. The story is about Adolf Derungs and Lucas Albrecht, a Swiss pairing who tackled the challenge in 1959 with primitive equipment and woefully inadequate clothing. But despite poor choices and more than a degree of foolishness, they made it (Derungs had another fateful go in 1962 in a solo attempt, and sadly that was the end of him…). Different sections abound, with a regular return to the main song structure, giving it a solid consistency. This track segues again into A Silent Drum, the second single from the album. The song structure again centres on the trading of vocals between Dorie and Bill over delicate band accompaniment. The story is a family one, that of John Harlin II whose attempt in 1966, with his son John Harlin III (who was 9 at the time), ended in tragedy when his rope broke. John Harlin III took up the reigns (so to speak) to exorcise the ghosts left by the death of his father, and succeeded in his North Face attempt in 2007. The lyrics tell the story clearly:
The band return to the lengthy suite approach with The Stormkeeper’s Daughter and A World Beyond Man, which combine to form an 11-minute epic. Following a piano intro, Dorie’s vocals are, again, a particular feature of this melodic, almost orchestral, piece. There is an engaging theme change after three-and-a-half minutes where The Stormkeeper’s Daughter flows seamlessly into A World Beyond Man; acoustic guitar is abundant with layered vocals from Dorie, singing parts an octave apart. I can’t imagine how the band might do this on stage, but I really hope they find a way. It’s a steady consistent section, almost choral in nature, with some symphonic prog that screams out to be longer, before a further change in theme with flute taking pole position to lead into The Stormkeeper’s Reprise. The most delightful surprise awaits with an almost orchestral string section, barn-storming guitar and sax solos before a delicate close on piano, acoustics and whistles. This is pure joy…
Endeavour is instrumental with each band member getting a slice of the limelight; a bit ‘Cropredy’, if you get what I mean. One can sense by the end of this track that the story is almost told… but there is a darker foreboding section, reminiscent of previous themes, with mystical vocals to close. The Eiger cannot be taken for granted…
The album finishes on a massive high with another 11-minute epic, the Mountaineers/Hall of Mirrors suite. The story is credited to the efforts of Chris Bonnington and Ian Clough in 1962, the first successful British ascent. Bill sets the Mountaineer’s theme perfectly, effectively summarising all the stories that have held our attention for the previous hour, before the band return to the familiar underlying musical theme of Hall of Mirrors; this gorgeous album closer wraps up the story, a sort of epilogue for mountaineers and summiteers and the adventures they have undertaken. And whilst we must never forget the brave attempts that ended in tragedy, this song is filled with happiness and brightness and I challenge anyone to admit to anything other than beaming smiles. This is full-on liquid gold, cementing Kaprekar’s Constant as far more than just Newcomers.
Dorie and Bill’s vocals play a major part – quite rightly – in this storytelling album. They are quite different, yet they complement each other perfectly. I single out Dorie in particular and I really do think she is one of the best female vocalists out there at the moment; her voice is simply made for this symphonic folky genre and is a true delight. Huge congrats to Bill too. The band is enormously accomplished and, as a whole, I could make a comparison with some early Alan Parsons Project material; Kaprekar’s Constant certainly give that venerable songwriter, musician and producer a run for his money.
What are my stand-out tracks? A difficult one, because this is another supremely enjoyable album. It really warrants a deliberate listen from start to finish, rather than isolating individual tracks, but I have always had a passionate interest in the Kurz / Hinsterstoisser story from 1936, and so I’m going with that 16-minute suite that starts with Failure Takes Care of its Own. But then, the album closure with Mountaineers / Hall of Mirrors is just about the perfect story ending too.
No review of a Kaprekar’s Constant album would be complete without a shout-out to Sean Jefferson who masterminded the artwork. If Depth of Field is anything to go by, this will be a package worthy of any collector’s shelf, and the vinyl version (due later in 2022) promises to be extra-special.
The band has not been prolific with their live shows to date, but this year we have their appearance at A New Day Festival in Faversham and the Cropredy Fringe Festival, both in August. I’m brimming with excitement to see them at at least one of these. Hopefully we will see more of them… they are a band that you must not miss.
Way back in 1938, Edward Lisle Strutt described the North Face as “an obsession for the mentally deranged.” No, this album is NOT metal. I’m left wondering whether some listeners will think this might be too ‘stage musical’ or orchestral, but they’d be wrong – very wrong. There’s far more to The Murder Wall than that. There’s nothing schmaltzy about any of this, it’s symphonic melodic prog at its very best with the trademark Kaprekar’s Constant folk elements. Every word, every note, every riff, counts. It is quite superb. There you go, I’ve said it – the most enjoyable storytelling album I’ve heard in decades, and their best album by a country mile.
01. Prologue (4:59)
02. Theme – Hall of Mirrors (2:23)
03. Tall Tales by Firelight (5:00)
04. Failure Takes Care of its Own (4:21)
05. Another Man’s Smile (6:02)
06. Years to Perfect (2:30)
07. Hope in Hell (3:00)
08. Victorious (6:13)
09. The Rain Shadow (2:07)
10. Third Man Down (7:20)
11. A Silent Drum (5:00)
12. The Stormkeeper’s Daughter (3:28)
13. A World Beyond Man (3:44)
14. The Stormkeeper’s Reprise (3:48)
15. Endeavour (3:43)
16. Mountaineers (4:58)
17. Hall of Mirrors (6:15)
Al Nicholson – Guitars, Piano, Keyboards, Mandolin
Nick Jefferson – Bass, Guitars, Keyboards
Mike Westergaard – Piano, Keyboards, Guitar, Backing Vocals
David Jackson – Saxophones, Flutes, G# Bell, Whistles
Bill Jefferson – Lead & Backing Vocals
Dorie Jackson – Lead & Backing Vocals, Vocal Arrangements
Mark Walker – Drums & Percussion
Judie Tzuke – Vocals (on Years to Perfect)