Wednesday, June 2, 2021

Review: Alestorm, "Curse of the Crystal Coconut"

To say that I anticipated this album more than any other in 2020 would be an understatement. Through five albums with Alestorm and three with Gloryhammer, Christopher Bowes has never disappointed me – and the band’s last outing, 2017’s No Grave but the Sea, was its best to date. I’ve sung the praises of Bowes at the top of my lungs, and his music has been a source of great joy for me for more than a decade. So it pains me to write this, but the magic just isn’t here on this one. It’s not a bad album by any means, but it’s just not on par with what they’ve done in the past.

Curse of the Crystal Coconut was always going to have a hard time following No Grave but the Sea. That release was near perfect. Bowes and crew were performing at the height of their piratical prowess on that one, and three years later, there’s not a song on it that gets the skip button. But the strong melodies and catchy hooks of No Grave are traded in here for a collection of middle-of-the-road songs that lack much of the charm I’ve come to expect.

I’m hesitant to say the album is too silly. After all, we’re talking about Alestorm and Christopher Bowes. It’s what he does. He’s spent quarantine on Twitch singing songs about bears on tractors and tractors on bears – which by the way, have been quite infectious and entertaining. But that’s a big part of the problem: A lot of the content is just goofy, and not in the good Alestorm way.

Things start well enough with the first single and opening song “Treasure Chest Party Quest.” It was a bit different, but it was an incredibly fun earworm with a video as bizarre as 2020 has been so far. It was exactly the kind of quirkiness that I expected from Bowes, and it only heightened my anticipation of the album.

The first hint that Alestorm’s pirate ship might be taking on a little water, though, came in the second single “Tortuga.” It wasn’t so much the stylistic shift with dance and hip-hop influences that turned me off. Alestorm has a history with pop music. They’ve covered Taio Cruz’s “Hangover,” one of their best-known songs is a cover of the Eurovision tune “Wolves of the Sea,” and “Magnetic North” was written to sync up with Lady Gaga’s “Telephone.” So, we’re used to that by now. The bottom line, though, is just that “Tortuga,” quite frankly, is not a good song. It’s silly, but not very fun, and while it has a few catchy moments, it’s also not very memorable. The video is far more amusing than the song itself.

While much of the rest of the album is more in the vein of what Alestorm has historically done than the first two singles, it’s just missing something. On the first few listens of most of the band’s albums, I’ve found myself humming melodies or singing snippets of songs hours later. Beyond “Treasure Chest Party Quest,” there was nothing that really stuck with me on early listens. Several of the songs have grown on me greatly over the last few weeks, but I still found myself returning to No Grave but the Sea instead of this one. The overall energy here is just completely different, as if maybe Christopher Bowes’ heart wasn’t fully into writing more pirate songs.

So far, I sound like I’m really down on Curse of the Crystal Coconut, but there are some bright spots on the record. “Fannybaws” gives us a fun romp through familiar territory and one of those hummable chorus melodies that we’ve come to expect. I really enjoy how the hook on “Chomp Chomp,” a song about the perils of giant crocodilians, comes not from Bowes’ vocal, but from a seafaring musical melody that ends, appropriately, with the band shouting “chomp chomp.” “Shit Boat (No Fans)” ridiculously turns a negative review of the band into a negative review of a rival’s pirate ship, and at only a minute or so long, gets out of its own way before the utter idiocy of the lyrics wear out their welcome.

One of the best moments on the album is not an Alestorm song at all. Gamers or fans of the 1990s animation series will recognize the title of the album as a reference from “Donkey Kong Country,” and fittingly, the band covers a song from the soundtrack, “Pirate’s Scorn,” originally sung by the character Kaptain Skurvy, whose great-great-great-grandfather lost the crystal coconut. It’s far and away the catchiest and most memorable tune on the record and one of the few that really captures that silly spirit of the band that I find so endearing.

The other cover on the album, though, doesn’t fare so well. It’s the traditional Scottish ballad “Henry Martin.” While it’s a fitting song for the band to record, given Bowes’ Scottish heritage and their pirate theme, it really takes a certain type of voice to pull it off, and that voice doesn’t belong to Christopher Bowes. Musically, it’s on point, but the vocal is pretty rough.

Most of the songs, though, fall somewhere in the middle ground. Looking at the early track listing, I thought surely that “Zombies Ate My Pirate Ship” would be one of the highlights of the record. Instead, it’s a little boring. There’s a really nice section where appropriately named guest hurdy gurdy player Patty Gurdy takes over the vocals leading into a cool symphonic bit, but for the most part, I could take it or leave it.

“Pirate Metal Drinking Crew” is sure to be a live crowd sing-along favorite, and it’s admittedly fun, but it sounds to me sort of like what might happen if you had an AI listen to Alestorm records for a few weeks and then asked it to write a song for the band. It hits all of the notes and lyrical topics, but it just doesn’t seem to have the same spirit.

I wonder if perhaps Bowes got a little confused on which band he was writing for on “Call of the Waves.” The big, bombastic sound of the song and the soaring melody seems tailor-made for Gloryhammer, and I have no doubt that Thomas Winkler’s dramatic vocal delivery could have sold the hell out of it. It’s not bad as an Alestorm song, but probably a little more impactful with his other band. Even still, I think it would have been one of the weaker tracks on Gloryhammer’s last two albums as well.

And that brings me to the song where I’ll probably have the biggest difference of opinion from most fans, “Wooden Leg, Pt. 2 (The Woodening).” Looking at early fan reactions, this seems to be a favorite. I won’t deny that it’s a fun one. I love the musical nods to Star Wars, Stranger Things and video game soundtracks. But honestly “Wooden Leg” was not one of my favorite Alestorm tunes, so it stands to reason that the sequel probably wouldn’t completely float my pirate ship, either. It has its moments, and like most of the songs on Curse of the Crystal Coconut, it’s far from bad, but it also wears out its welcome a little with me.

It’s pretty rare as a writer that I agonize over a review, but this was one of them. It only takes a quick look at my history with Bowes’ bands to see that his particular brand of fun goofiness has been a big part of my life for the past 12 years or so. But I have to be honest, and for the first time ever I leave an Alestorm album not with a big grin and a desire to hoist the Jolly Roger, but actually kind of bummed. Apart from “Tortuga” and “Henry Martin,” there’s really not anything overtly bad here – yet for me, it’s just missing some of the magic.

If ever there were a year that needed a fantastic Alestorm album, 2020 is it. Unfortunately, Curse of the Crystal Coconut is just OK. It’s fun while it lasts, but I don’t know how much of it I’ll be listening to three years from now. Luckily, by then, we should have the next Gloryhammer record.

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