Black Sails at Midnight, by Alestorm
Suggested by Nicholas Fitterson
Does anyone remember Charlie Chuck?
Charlie Chuck is the comedic alter ego of stand-up David Kear, with a velvet suit and a wild shock of permed hair, coughing up his lungs and shouting “Donkey! Woof! Bark!” in a what can only be described as a laconic frenzy. He had a modicum of success in the early Nineties, most notably when repackaged as Uncle Peter on The Smell of Reeves and Mortimer, or as the one-time face of Cadbury’s Double Decker.
I enjoyed his act, for what it was, an unhinged man yelling nonsense at the sky. When he was peppered through a wider production, he was a fun amuse bouche, a palette cleanser before the comic narrative moved onto something more satisfying. But as the main course? I’ll pass. There’s an apocryphal story of an unsettled crowd at his one-man show in Liverpool, where, during a Q&A segment, one disgruntled punter asked “What’s it like only having one bloody joke?”
Alestorm are a Scottish heavy metal unit that specialise in Pirate Metal. Over six albums to date, each sporting a cover illustration fresh from the cutting room floor on the Pirates of the Caribbean set, they deliver upbeat folk-tinged power metal, backed with strings and brass and keyboards, with lyrics and themes that are entirely obsessed with All Things Pirate. And, like other bands that choose to nail their colours to one specific mast – I’m looking at you, Amon Amarth – Alestorm are the personification of the phrase “One-Trick Pony”.
The eleven tracks on Black Sails at Midnight are functionally identical. Fast, frenetic drumming. Widdling keyboards and guitar solos. Chanted shanty choruses. A vocalist whose schtick is doing the clichéd pirate growl, and speaking / acting the lyrics rather than strictly singing. The song titles and lyrics are all dredged from the briny deep, with titles like Wolves of the Sea, Leviathan, Keelhauled, and so on. It’s all very rousing, with a yo-ho-ho and a stifled yawn.
Just like Charlie Chuck, Alestorm raise a smile for a few minutes, until you realise that no, there isn’t anything more. I nodded along and tapped my feet for a few songs, before sighing deeply and detaching myself from the sound. It didn’t help that each song felt profoundly constructed, with very few blended edges. The separate pieces of each never once truly gelled into a cohesive song or sound, with the steel beams of construction on display each and every time the band hit an obvious insert-solo-here section. And the singer? For a band that’s pirate-themed, I’d hoped the vocal would feel more authentic than the dime-store cosplay sound we received. It’s no great surprise that my standout is the acoustic No Quarter.
On later albums, Alestorm lean more heavily into the trope, and play things up for more obvious laughs. There, you’ll find songs called Zombies Ate My Pirate Ship, F**ked by an Anchor, Surf Squid Warfare, and the wonderfully simple Wooden Leg! Bizarrely, I respect that approach. No one wants to see a Pirate Metal Apologist, after all.
Black Sails at Midnight gets 4/10. If this were one or two songs on a more eclectic Genre Metal compilation, I’d likely be more generous. But play an album of the stuff, and I’ll be abandoning ship by track three.