Don’t be fooled by the name. There are, in fact, only four of them, and their gruff caterwauling wouldn’t last five minutes in most conventional choirs, gospel or otherwise. If you’re new to Calgary’s Agnostic Mountain Gospel Choir, perhaps the very fetching sleeve – a detail of a mocked-up $10,000 ‘Hell Bank Note’ featuring an illustration of Delta blues legend Son House – might give a hint as to their intentions.
Ten Thousand, the quartet’s third album, features 14 cuts of furious, stomping, acoustic punk blues wailing par excellence. A raw slide guitar, courtesy of Judd Palmer or Bob Keelaghan, is usually to the fore, either duelling like-for-like or going the distance with a meddling banjo. Peter Balkwill’s shuffling percussion oils the machine and Vlad Sobolewski’s thundering stand-up bass walks tall at the back.
Covers of House‘s Empire State Express and Sleepy John Estes‘ Stop That Thing are there for pointers (yes, and for the sheer hell of it), in case you didn’t get where the band were coming from. In fact, Seasick Steve no less, proclaimed them his “new favourite band” after sharing a festival bill in Belfast. And Palmer’s spat out shot-to-hell vocals lend themselves to inevitable and frequent Tom Waits comparisons.
You may find however, that a little of Ten Thousand, punked-up but purist, goes a long way, and musically, AMGC only have a smidgen of Waits’ variety. You Got It Wrong does change tack slightly, a banjo-driven speed-hillbilly number that’s a none-too-distant, stripped back cousin of the Pogues. And Dark Holler finds the band at their most elemental, a slice of atmospheric folk blues with a chill at its core.
You do have to wonder where they could take this if they were to try to expand their musical horizons outside of that musical vacuum they apparently live and create within. But it has to be acknowledged that Ten Thousand is beautiful and real, music with dirty boots and days without a shave, a timeless sound from a bygone age that has its day again, as the discerning listener craves something gritty, with authenticity and excitement.
This album, really though, is an exercise in trying to bottle lightning. A dose of this might help you get through a dog of a day, but you’ve probably got to see the Agnostic Mountain Gospel Choir prowling a stage to get their guttural backwoods fury in full effect. Nevertheless, a fine effort.