O DEATH: ALTERED CARBON, VERA HALL, RALPH STANLEY, JEN TITUS, A HILL TO DIE UPON, KHEMMIS
I almost never watch anything available through on-line streaming services like Netflix. I don’t watch multi-part TV series available through cable networks like HBO either (I’m one of four people in the U.S. who has never seen a Game of Thrones episode; the other three have been in a coma since 2010). It’s not that I’m uninterested. It’s a question of time, and choices among what I’d have to sacrifice in order to make room for all the hours of viewing. But I made an exception last night.
My wife is out of town visiting one of her sisters. Time with my wife, who has no interest in watching the kind of shows referred to above, is one of the things I’d have to sacrifice if I watched more TV. Time with NCS is another one. But with my wife gone and with my NCS post for today (not this one, the next one) at least planned out in my head, I decided to start watching Altered Carbon on Netflix. The first season became available on February 2nd.
The book of the same name, by Richard Morgan, is an old favorite of mine; I’ve read every other sci-fi book he’s written, too, but I always thought it would be great if someone turned Altered Carbon into a movie or TV series. So, with some extra time on my hands, this was a temptation I couldn’t resist.
I binge-watched the first four episodes. I’ll probably watch at least that many more at some point today or tonight. I think the acting from the main performers is usually only average (with some surprising moments of real power), but the dialogue is generally good (and sometimes superb), the actors in the smaller roles are uniformly outstanding, it’s a visual feast, and I’ve been enjoying the soundtrack music as well. And of course I still love the story.
One writer for The New York Times called the series “a low-rent ‘Blade Runner‘ knockoff with basic-cable production values and premium-cable nudity”. A different writer for the same paper penned this blurb in a column on “12 Shows We’ll Be Talking About In February”:
“If the recent ‘Blade Runner‘ sequel didn’t satisfy your thirst for futuristic detective tales, this adaptation of the novelist Richard Morgan’s 2002 cyberpunk classic should do the trick. Joel Kinnanman (‘The Killing’) plays Morgan’s gruff, tough action hero Takeshi Kovacs, a mercenary whose consciousness was stored away for hundreds of years before being slipped into a new human ‘sleeve’ and employed to solve a murder. The series combines stunning science-fiction imagery with a traditional film noir plot, putting both in service of disturbing speculation on how humanity might evolve — and in some cases become more depraved — in the centuries ahead.”
At the end of each episode, you hear an excerpt from a different song — not songs written for the show, but songs picked (I guess) because they seem to suit what’s happening at the end of the episode. At the end of the third episode, the song is an excerpt of a woman singing “O Death“. I knew the song, which dates back to Appalachia in the 1920s (according to The Font of All Human Knowledge) and has been recorded by lots of people in lots of different ways under slightly different titles, but I’d never heard the recording that played at the end of that Altered Carbon episode, which I thought was striking.
So, before starting episode four, I started hunting for that particular version. It took a very long time for me to find it, since it’s an old recording and I didn’t know who was performing it. In the process of trying to track it down, I came across other versions, some that I’d heard before and some that I hadn’t. Two versions of the song were by metal bands — and one of those was digitally released just last week, though I hadn’t yet found time to listen to it.
I’ll make my way toward the metal versions of “O Death“, but I want to begin with the version of the song that came at the end of that Altered Carbon episode. This is “Death Have Mercy“, performed by American blues and gospel singer Vera W. Hall (1902-1964), recorded by Alan Lomax in the summer of 1959:
Ralph Stanley died in June 2016. He was a world-famous bluegrass musician with a long history, and he reached a new generation of listeners in 2000 (at the age of 73) through his a cappella recording of “O Death” for the soundtrack to O Brother, Where Art Thou?. This video shows him rendering the song live on stage, also a cappella.
I’m not positive, but I think this clip comes from Down from the Mountain, a 2000 documentary and concert film featuring live performances on May 24, 2000, in Nashville by the country and traditional music artists who participated in the soundtrack to O Brother, Where Art Thou?.
When I began the search for Vera Hall’s version of the song, I scrolled through page after page of Google search results (which never did include the Vera Hall song), about half of which consisted of links to a version of “O Death” recorded by Jen Titus, which was used in a 2010 episode of the TV series Supernatural, which is now into its 13th season and which of course I’ve never watched (see first paragraph above). Jen Titus’ voice isn’t in the same league as Vera Hall’s, but I do like this spooky, modernized version of the song:
Now we’ll get to the metal versions of the song that I promised at the outset. The first one is by NCS favorites A Hill to Die Upon from their 2014 album Holy Despair. This version cranks up the energy dial compared to the preceding, more traditional renditions, and of course the vocals are harsh (but joined by the clean tones of a female vocalist in the song’s slower and more beautifully somber chorus sections). The melding of the jolting, high-powered metal attack and a crystalline harp melody in the song’s finale was another inspired choice.
And at last we come to the metal version of “O Death” that was digitally released just last week through Bandcamp. This version is by some other NCS favorites, Colorado’s Khemmis. It goes under the name “A Conversation With Death“, and the song is part of split entitled Fraught With Peril by Khemmis and Spirit Adrift, originally released on 7″ vinyl last summer. Here’s Khemmis‘ introduction to the song from the Bandcamp page for it:
“‘Conversation with Death’ is an early 20th century Appalachian dirge written by Lloyd Chandler, an itinerant Free Will Baptist Preacher from North Carolina. The song is best known as ‘O Death,’ after being famously covered by Ralph Stanley in 2002. Our interpretation pays homage to both versions and is a reminder that even wealth and power cannot stop the inevitable: death comes for us all.”
So it does…
Enjoy Khemmis‘ crushing, soulful rendition of a song that even in its earliest recordings is metal to the bone.
This is actually pretty cool. When I saw the title I wondered if you were talking about this song
I’ve been watching Supernatural since it’s first episode, so I’m very familiar with the Jen Titus version. Very interested in comparing it with these other versions. On a side note, unless you get really caught up in the show, I’d only recommend watching the first five seasons of Supernatural. It’s basically one singular storyline, and it’s never really hit those heights again (seasons six and seven are just plain bad)
Also, you definitely need to jump on the Castlevania series from Netflix. Don’t let the fact its animated put you off, it’s metal as fuck! (…and season one is only 4 episodes).
Meanwhile, I’m going to check out Altered Carbon because I’ve never heard of it and it sounds pretty sweet!
I was pretty enthusiastic about Altered Carbon from the first episode, and just got more addicted over the next three. I do think it’s worth checking out, even if you’re not familiar with the book.
I don’t know when I’ll be able to check into Supernatural or Castlevania. May have to wait until my wife leaves town again. 🙂
I just discovered the show was up a few hours ago. Looks cool and I will be watching it this week for sure!
If your wife is into genre shows like that at all, she may enjoy Supernatural. It’s actually got a pretty big female fan base so it must be doing something right. Season one is very “monster of the week”, so some episodes are better than others, but if you stick with it, as the overall lore starts to develop, it does improve.
Going to start Altered Carbon tomorrow for sure.
Back to the music, I liked all the various versions of this song, for one reason or another, except the version by A Hill to Die Upon. I think they really missed the mark here. The harsh vocals actually worked against it not really being able to make out the lyrics, the faster pace strips away the atmosphere the other versions have, and the slower chorus actually doesn’t fit very well…it almost feels shoehorned in.
Appalachian death dirges on my favorite metal blog. My day is now made.
I figured this would be up your alley (and thanks for the kind words).
Great song, in all it’s forms. Thanks for sharing!
I too have been working on Altered Carbon, enjoying it thus far without any knowledge of the source material.
For what it’s worth, in the show I’ve noticed a clip of Babymetal’s ‘Karate’ , as well as an interesting female-sung version of White Zombie’s ‘More Human than Human’.
I just started watching Altered Carbon this week – and I literally just finished that same episode where I noticed Babymetal in the background.
This is a cool post. I had no idea the series was based on a book, and now I’m intrigued to look into it.
Also, that’s some great Kovacs detective work tracking down the original 1959 song.
Song also popped up in the opening of a game I own called Until Dawn, with slightly altered lyrics. First time I heard that version was on a stream of a game and I was the only idiot in the chat going, “Oh, like the song Hill To Die Upon covered?” while everyone else was citing the obviously more culturally popular movie version.
To me, it’s a weird and wondrous thing that this old, purely American song, just keeps propagating. But I guess, not so American after all, but universal. Its cold hand caresses our feet, wherever and whenever we live.
That’s the sentiment that transcends history with death being the great equalizer – though Carbon and plenty of other sci-fi books do plenty to play with mortality and identity – and if there’s one thing that we’ve done a good job at, it’s the propagation of our death hymns over the years. The thing that fascinates me are the different covers and cultural takes on a song like this, or like mentioned in the comments above, the different take on a White Zombie song. We have a somewhat universal pillar of culture to start with and then you can extrapolate a whole variety of different sounds out of it, different lenses depending on who is approaching it. Hell, the more recent covers of O Death these days seem to enjoy really dragging the song length out, taking it from something that the earlier songs you have in this post, clocking it between a minute and a half, to two, to a more current four-something minutes, with a heavily industrial influenced layer behind it – barring our death metal friends who are making their mark on it given the obvious shared metal and blues influences, basically doing what should have been obvious for years.
Wow! Thanks so much. I was trying to find the original version of that song! Great research and informative post!
Thanks! It’s nice to know that my impulsive obsessive behavior is appreciated even if it probably requires medication. 🙂
Same here, I was looking for this song and you saved me a lot of work searching for it