A State of Mind – Jade Amulet - Comic Book

There’s a few things in this life that make me a bit queasy. The sound of people cracking their knuckles. The feel of cotton wool. And the phrase “concept album”.

The phrase “concept album” makes me think of greasy boys with poor personal hygiene and questionable haircuts who cling to a hope that talking about the “idea” behind Jethro Tull and Rush will somehow convince the girls that they possess hidden depths of intellectual and sexual prowess, and spend lonely nights with nothing but a box of Kleenex for company. I blame this aversion on my upbringing in the English provinces in the 1980’s. Punk didn’t reach into the rural heartlands of the Midlands to wipe the slate clean of such nonsense. The youth club disco disc jockey ploughed a vinyl timeline that ran straight from Pink Floyd to the Sisters of Mercy, no deviations or diversions from the dirge.

So when I was asked if I wanted to review The Jade Amulet, in an email explaining that “it’s a magnus opus accompanied by a comic book setting out the story that spans across the album”, my first response was purely gestural and involved my middle finger.

The fact I knew it was hip hop didn’t really help because I’ve tried to get past the concept of the concept on this basis before now. Plenty of people have tried to make me listen to Prince Among Thieves, Dr Octagonecolygst, and Deltron 3030. I have love for individual tracks on all of these albums. And I guess that’s the point – individual tracks, yes, having to get behind the characters and listen to the non-musical “interludes” that punctuate them, no thanks. For a start, some of them are shit. Dr Octagon’s narrative is little better than the plot of a 70’s German porn flick. Secondly, it all strikes me as a bit self-indulgent. Just play the damn song already and stop fucking telling me what it means. Third, sometimes, despite the calibre of the artist, the musical direction of the album ends up being driven by the concept instead of the sound.

I do make an exception, though, for anything with MF Doom attached. Firstly because his lyrics are so left-field that trying to pull any narrative thread from his work is pointless and impossible; so I don’t bother. Secondly because, hey, it’s Doom and he’s definitely in my top 5 because face it, no-one sounds anything like him. Thirdly because chooses his producers and musical associates wisely, so it’s rare that musical quality gets sacrificed for some spurious notion of plot.

I re-read the email about The Jade Amulet and saw that one track features MF Doom. So I decided to press play.

And…

I want to thank ASM for finally, after many, many years, managing to sever the Proustian link between the notion of concept albums and the recollected stench of denim soaked in Patchouli and stale sweat. Because this is just, revelatory.

The album comes with a comic book. Now, I’m not an aficionado of the comic book genre so I decide to ignore it in the first instance and see if the album made sense to me musically without reference to it. It does. You can listen to and love this album without ever looking at the pictures, if you want. This is, first and foremost, a coherent, funky, hip hop album with a healthy respect for the power of the horn section.

I read the bio and realised that the reason why MC’s FP and Green sounded so familiar is because they’ve worked alongside Chinese Man – which makes sense, as that outfit works within a similarly ambitious soundscape.

Here, the “concept” allows space for some cinematic instrumentation, some dramatic strings, some birdsong and waves, and even the odd pan pipe (the spaghetti western-esque intro to Doubt is a case in point). This is dangerous territory, and lesser mortals would have slipped over the cliff into a pit of pretention, but producer Fade navigates the high-wire with ease, never losing touch with the need to keep the beats tight and to make the damn thing funky. Check Utopia as an example of a track that, instrumentally anyway, doesn’t sound like hip hop at all, but that works brilliantly underneath the sure-footed flow.

Guests take the roles of characters in the story, and perform their parts with aplomb. If I have a criticism it would be that Laura Mayne has one of the most beautiful voices I’ve heard in ages and her contribution is too short.

I love it, basically. The comic book is great, and I like the idea. It’s a return to the days when we bought gatefold vinyl and poured over the sleeve notes as the record span. Apparently the album performed live would have elements of a theatre production. Normally that’s the sort of thing that would bring me out in an anti-theatrical rush, but I’d LOVE to see this. I’m a convert, basically. And the best thing to me is that you can download the album from Bandcamp and ignore the comic completely if you like. This is, to put it simply, probably one of the best albums you’ll hear this year and it just HAPPENS to tell a story.

Oh, and the MF Doom track? Hell. Yeah. Obviously.

Words by Vicky T