I first became aware of London-based Band of Holy Joy when frontman/BOHJ constant, Johny Brown, did guest vocals and lyrics on Vanilla Swingers’ debut album. I then managed to track down three albums (More Favourite Fairy Tales; Manic, Magic, Majestic; Positively Spooked) and an EP (The Big Ship Sails) out of their twenty-seven-year-spanning discography. With its long and fluid roster of former band members over the years, Band of Holy Joy have been described as a parallel, inverse version of The Fall; where Mike E. Smith’s project seems like an endless subtraction and whittling of art into ever sharper shapes, Brown’s band has thrived on its own fluid democracy and expansive creativity. The current line-up for the latest album, How to Kill a Butterfly, includes Andy Astles, Christopher Brierley, William J. Lewington, James Stephen Finn, and Inga Tillere. This album also features backing vocals from members of Jonny Cola and the A-Grades and Something Beginning with L, and Jon Clayton on cello. There’s something arcane and mystical about Band of Holy Joy; their music is the perfect accompaniment to psychogeographic perambulations, following urban ley lines all the way out to the humming countryside. This record is filled with tales of flight and death. And it is one of the most uplifting records I’ve ever heard.
The album package is exquisitely designed as a blood-crimson book containing ghostly images which radiate through technical scientific diagrams of anatomy from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. I’m reminded of almanacs like Aristotle’s Masterpiece, popular manuals that hybridized folk alchemy with early modern science, gleefully displaying monstrously impossible children. This record, too, is often concerned with birth and sex, which seem to flirt and meld with the headiness of mortality. See the tango-inflected track “Between a Nightingale’s Song and Now”: “Starstruck and killed by the life we loved/The sport of death in every spurt of come.” Brown introduces the liner booklet with a mini-essay of sorts. He shifts back and forth, alternating between optimal instructions for killing butterflies and for making records; both are delicate procedures. How best do you preserve fragile, colourful insects? How best do you preserve ephemeral sound? This record becomes an answer, straddling that line between expiration and beauty, an aural wunderkammer. After all, the wunderkammer is a displayed collection of natural, curious specimens, essentially a chamber of aesthetic deaths. Brown concludes his essay by writing: “We’ve killed a butterfly and made a new artifact…talk about visceral tangibility opposing archaic practices.” He manages to pin down the intangibility of music and its tension with the beauty of the well-crafted object.
After an introduction of eddying wind, Brown pleads for an emotional thaw and baptism in the opening song “Go Break the Ice.” As the violin accelerates into a counter-wind of sorts, Brown’s idiosyncratic quaver leans precariously close to overwrought, but continually catches itself in a gripping performance of otherworldliness. His vocals pitch into diaphragm-heaving bellows on “Oh What a Thing This Heart of Man” as he bids us to “strike out now.” Despite the bewildering disappointment probed within the lyrics, the swelling musical backdrop and the pronouncement of “You’re either with life or it’s against you” imbue the song with conviction. This internal mapping is a breathtaking maneuver through the baroque curls of brain matter and their inexplicable machinations. The album starts to become something akin to a life manual.
The band explores northern mapping on songs such as “These Men Underground” and “Northern.” The former contains the oscillation between pensive, staid verses of grim industry and an incredible girl-group-style chorus that is pure elation of temporary escape, the rush of release—even if it’s as doomed as transplanted wings on a man’s shoulder blades. The latter is a similar alternation of wistful, slow verses and a psychedelic 60s go-go party of a chorus as Brown meditates on migrating away from the north:
I catch the light sometime
A dirty blush of cloud
Over the drifting of the crowd
History and ambition fuel an endless fire
Of famine migration sadness and desire
Granted, Brown is originally from Newcastle-on-Tyne, which may account for the recurring theme, but the concept of “the north” remains a fascinating one. So many countries, including my own, have varying ideas of what “the north” means, but it is often still consolidated into one location of preconceived notions, assumptions, and otherness, the cultural differences wrought from arbitrary geography. Where does “the north” begin? Perhaps for Canada it is the tree line. Perhaps for England it is the northernmost band of the M25. For Brown, “the north” is an industrial north, proud and pining, dirty and damp, grey and grand.
For “The Observer’s Book of Birds’ Eggs,” “The Repentant,” and “A Clear Night. A Shooting Star. A Song for Boo,” Brown recites free verse over undulating soundscapes. In fact, these songs are reminiscent of the band’s weekly Radio Joy podcasts in which there are often spoken elements and readings backed and embraced by esoteric music and found sounds; dream narrowcasts, nocturnal transmissions. “The Observer’s Book of Birds’ Eggs” lovingly documents a seven-year-old’s nascent understanding of new life and the compulsion to collect and curate it, often extinguishing it in the process. The world-weariness of age sets in on “The Repentant,” which takes comfort and relief in the knowledge we are temporary. The song’s narrator literally embodies the excess and putrescence of humanity with brittle bones that could be as easily crushed as an eggshell. The music shambles with street energy and city friction; an entire urban procession of observation and surveillance is present: protestors, tourists, students, police. The last sentiment of the song is a provocative, but fortifying perspective on what it means to be humane:
You clamour now to save the planet. But I say this…maybe the planet will do ok without us. Maybe the planet is going to be fine. Maybe the planet doesn’t need our saving. Maybe this planet can get as polluted with as many chemicals as it can ingest. Maybe the planet will continue in all its very mutations. Does it matter? Not to me. What matters to me…and what I think it all boils down to…at the end our days, having lived through all our ways, and with the memories that have stayed, deep down inside, what matters to me, surely, is how we treat each other.
The final track, “A Clear Night. A Shooting Star. A Song for Boo,” picks up on this sense of hope. It sounds like a crystalline call of dying and newborn stars pulsing out of deep space. The staccato melody also seems to mimic the precise flow of electricity and binary code. As Brown mesmerizes with his instructions on how to take back the silence, the song becomes an alternative, self-help relaxation recording in which you need to lance the chemicals boiling in your appliances and to pull the plug on their electrical support. He entreats you to baptize yourself in the quietude. The album comes full-circle as it ends with the sound of wind, now solicitous where before it was lonely.
How to Kill a Butterfly is raw, and honest, and sweet even when grotesque and surreal, like butterflies nibbling on the carcasses of piranhas. It doesn’t profess an irritating hippy-crusty-traveler ethos, nor does it pander to some middle-class, “back to the land,” pastoral utopia. It is folk music informed by the city. You can feel the powdery and fractal spectrum of sound, iridescent in your ear. This record is life made strange and wonderful. In it, we are all time travelers and space travelers, tenuous collections of coal dust, road dust, stardust, butterfly dust.
Purchase How to Kill a Butterfly at the Band of Holy Joy shop.