One of the more uniquely interesting acts I’ve featured on this blog is Nashville rock band Rusty Shipp. The brain child of front man Russ T. Shipp (his actual birth name is Russell Thomas Shipp), Rusty Shipp is a self-described “Nautical Rock’n’Roll” band, with a sound influenced by, in their own words, “the melodic chord progressions of The Beatles, the surf guitar of Dick Dale, the grunge rock of Nirvana, and the heavy metal of Led Zeppelin“. As their name would suggest, their music is characterized by a dark, immersive sound, unforgettable melodies, electrifying guitar work, and Shipp’s vibrant tenor vocals. Like many a band, they’ve experienced numerous changes in lineup since forming in 2014, and now consist of the aforementioned Russ Shipp on guitar and vocals, AJ Newton on drums, Dave Gajda on lead guitar, and Doug Webster on bass.
Rusty Shipp released an EP Hold Fast to Hope in 2014, then followed in 2017 with their highly-acclaimed debut album Mortal Ghost. They dropped several singles throughout 2019, which culminated in the release that November of their phenomenal second album Liquid Exorcist, which I reviewed. In keeping with their nautical theme, the album is a concept work built around the subject of sea mine terrorism. This past January, starting with “Bottom of the Barrel”, they began releasing what would become a series of nine singles at the rate of one per month. All of those songs and more are featured on their latest album Dark Side of the Ocean, which dropped October 28th.
An ambitious work, Dark Side of the Ocean (its official title is Cosmic Innuendo, Vol 1: Dark Side of the Ocean), is another nautically-themed concept album, this time exploring the balance between dark and light, descent and ascent, and men and angels. About the album, Shipp explains: “While it was written and recorded during the pandemic, instead of following the natural response of the world to react to the crisis with fear by retreating into our comfortable “Us and Them” sects and blaming “Them” as the problem and the bad guys, this album tried very hard (as challenging as it was at the time) to focus on the commonalities and good that still exist in all people and the hope that still exists for our world to bring us all together and get all our needs met.“
Shipp wrote the lyrics, co-wrote the music with band drummer Newton, and did the arrangements. The album was produced by Stephen Leiweke at Yackland Studio in Nashville, and mastered by Alex McCollough. The gorgeous artwork was created by Hein Zaayman.
With a few nods to Pink Floyd, including its title, the album is divided into two parts: The first half (consisting of 21 ½ minutes), called “DESCENT”, follows the descent of a drowned sailor, sinking past undiscovered creatures and mysteries to the bottom of the ocean, where his soul is intercepted by a group of sea angels and taken to their underwater kingdom. The 2nd half of the album (also 21 ½ minutes long) is called “ASCENT”, and explores this angelic kingdom, ruled by Poseidon, the king archangel of the ocean. After debating the danger involved, the angels decide to ascend and discover why men’s souls are sinking from the ocean’s surface with increased frequency, with feelings of duty to help these men in the world above the waves, which the angels ironically call “Heaven.” Read the full story here.
The album opens with the title track, a 33-second-long spoken word introductory piece accompanied by eerie underwater sounds and a building guitar riff, informing us that the ocean contains 99% of Earth’s living space, yet 80% of it has never been mapped, much less explored. We have better maps of the surface of the moon than of the ocean floor, and with scientists estimating that there are as many as 90% of ocean species still undiscovered, one has to wonder what else could be down there at the bottom of our planet…the dark side of the ocean.
Those grungy, jagged riffs are quickly joined by a torrent of aggressive drumbeats as we’re launched headlong into “Living Waters“. Shipp passionately sings of the life-giving power of water, despite the fact that it’s also taken the life of many a sailor: “Let the living waters flow and bring the world to life. Trickle down the darkest cracks that never get the light. Weaving in and out of every creature on the Earth. Pull us all into the harmony that we’re created for.”
This immediately segues into the 49-second-long interlude “What Blows Up (Must Come Down)“, a fantastic barrage of raging surf guitars. Like their previous album Liquid Exorcist, Dark Side of the Ocean contains several instrumental interludes that serve to connect the tracks and move the narrative forward. That interlude then becomes “Bottom of the Barrel“, a gnarly but melodic track sung from the perspective of the drowning sailor, whose soul is reborn into a magical undersea world: “Down at the bottom of the barrel. Still your love is bottomless. The weight of the world is crushing me to a pulp, but it brings my soul to the surface. If I make my bed in Mariana Trench, I’m welcomed to a city that’s lit. Bioluminescence.” The cool video was directed by Shipp’s wife Joy Soleil.
Though Rusty Shipp is not a Christian band per se, Shipp is up-front about his faith, as is evident in many of his lyrics. The 36-second-long track “The Bloop“, which serves as an introductory piece for “Tanninim“, a song about undiscovered sea monsters, includes spoken lines of scripture from Genesis, interspersed with Shipp’s own lyrics: “Let the waters bring forth abundantly the moving creature that hath life. And God created great Tanninim and every living creature that moveth. Which the waters brought forth abundantly after their kind. And God saw that it was good, saying, ‘Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the waters in the seas’.” “Tanninim” has a wonderfully eerie vibe, highlighted by a bold reggae beat driven by Newton’s brilliant drumming, and accompanied by Shipp’s spooky vocals that sound like he’s singing while underwater.
On the hard-driving grungy rocker “What’s Kracken?“, Shipp uses the mythical sea monster Kracken as a metaphor for the truth in a divided political environment where what constitutes the truth is often elusive and up for debate: “A tentacle washed up on shore. The TV says there’s something more ‘Was it just a giant squid or evidence of Leviathan?’ Can anybody out there say ‘What’s Kraken?‘”
One of the many things I love about this album is how every track sounds uniquely different, with a wide variety of music styles and genres represented. “Fish in the Sea” is in the style of a sea shanty, a traditional work song once commonly sung aboard large merchant sailing ships, while “Angel Aquarium” fuses ska with frantic guitar-driven rock. “DESCENT” ends with “Bioluminescence“, a brief hauntingly beautiful piano ballad reprising the chorus from “Bottom of the Barrel”.
Opening the “ASCENT” half of the album is “King of the Deep“, a funereal-sounding sea shanty that’s one of the most powerful tracks on the album, and also one of my favorites. With verses alternately sung by sailors, angels and Poseidon, the song seems to be an ode to Poseidon himself. I like how the vocals and instrumentals are presented differently for each: the sailors’ are delivered with deep, baritone vocals accompanied by pounding drumbeats and fuzz-coated gnarly guitars, while the angels sound…well, angelic, with Shipp’s near-falsetto front and center, accompanied by lovely synths and delicate guitar notes. And as Poseidon, Shipp’s vocals are more commanding, of course. The song ends in a dramatic chorus of all three entities singing in glorious harmony.
“Man Myth Legend” is a roiling punk rock gem fueled by marvelous psychedelia-tinged surf guitars. Man, this band knows how to rock! The lyrics speak to looking beyond our pre-conceived notions about people, keeping us locked in eternal conflict, and instead try to see them as humans not all that different from ourselves: “Tradition tries to demonize what we don’t understand. We need to see them through the love that covers all our skins. Until we’re dining in their homes, these men will be as good as myths and legends. They say the issue’s black and white, but aren’t we all just different shades of gray? If it makes us black and blue, then we’re going the wrong way. But we could bring in an age of peace, joining both our worlds into one. We could be the heroes that make a new end to the legend.“
Each of Rusty Shipp’s three albums includes a cover of a classic rock song by a famous band. Their first album Mortal Ghost featured the Beatles song “Helter Skelter”, Liquid Exorcist featured Audioslave’s “Show Me How to Live”, and now Dark Side of the Ocean includes Pink Floyd’s “Us and Them“, from their 1973 masterpiece Dark Side of the Moon. While honoring the song’s compelling melody, Rusty Shipp’s version shaves a little over four minutes off the original, and gives it a harder rock treatment, with a bold mix of jangly and gnarly guitars and more emphatic vocals. The lyrics speak to the stupidity of war: “Us and them. And after all we’re all just ordinary men. Me and you. God only knows, it’s not what we would choose to do. Forward he cried from the rear. And the front rank died. The general sat and the lines on the map moved side to side. Black and blue. And who knows which is which and who is who? Up and down. And in the end we’re spinning round ‘n round.“
The darkly beautiful instrumental interlude “Waking Braves” is a playful reimagining of their song “Breaking Waves” from Liquid Exorcist. This is followed by the grungy “Untouchable“, a terrific Nirvana-esque song about a soul with eternal life, free from earthly worries: “I am untouchable ‘cause nothing in this world can touch my soul. I am unconditionally loved, more than my heart could ever hold. I am a part of a plan where I am taken care of forever. I have eternal life, so tell me what is left to fear?” The grungy rock vibes continue on the raucous minute and a half long instrumental interlude “Up the Waterspout“.
The album closes with “The Other Side“, where so many of the elements that make Dark Side of the Ocean such a great album come together into a grand finale. The songs starts off as a slow acoustic ballad, then erupts into a celebratory feast of rousing surf guitars and frenetic ska grooves. The lyrics speak to what I think of as my own definition of Heaven, which is not some magical ‘perfect’ place in the clouds, but rather a sense of happiness and contentment that exists as a state of mind: “People always look for Heaven in the wrong places as if it’s just somewhere you go on retirement vacation. But a wise man once said that the Kingdom of Heaven is within; try looking there and let me know when you find it. We’re going on a search for the real Heaven. A Heaven we don’t have to wait for till our lives are through. We’re finding out the real meaning of salvation, and finding out it’s better than anything we thought we knew.”
I’m not sure what more I can say about Dark Side of the Ocean, other than to reiterate how marvelous it is. Not only are its concept and storyline brilliantly executed, it’s sounds damn good too! The musicians and sound engineers involved in the album’s recording and production did a masterful job, and the result is a work that’s flawlessly arranged and beautifully crafted on every level. Finally, a great deal of credit must go to Russ Shipp’s incredible vision, imagination and talents, both as a songwriter and vocalist.