Dalton Trumbo wrote of the uncertainties and horror of war quite effectively but Martin Bowes and Anni Hogan bring it out palpably in sound. With his oppressive arrangements and her jarringly effective piano the pair of them create a world of unending smoke, mud and thundering guns. I’ve often read that it was the waiting which was the worst part of World War I; a fascinating series I discovered recently narrated by Kenneth Branagh has interviews with surviving veterans who pretty much say this and quite a lot more. The statement I liked best would be “anyone… who says he wasn’t afraid to go over the top… is a damned liar.” William Bowes no doubt would have agreed. But tempting as it is to broaden the scope of this review, ‘Millions of the Mouthless Dead’ is not an album about this war on a grand scale, it is a personal account. One drawn out of the echoing tides of time.
A voice amidst the chaos, one man’s experiences. This tale isn’t told by the man himself, but rather through the music his grandson Martin Bowes has created. The barbed wire, the endless rattle of the machine guns calling to the cattle; with minimal electronics driving the narrations and instrumental interludes you begin to get a feel for the day to day grind at the front. Nicely placed broadcasts are manipulated so that they sound as though they’re coming right off that phonograph and out of the megaphone. French, English and German text is read by native speakers and it amazes me that he was able to keep this under wraps for well over a year. But somehow this is just par for the course, after all what was more secretive than the activities of those nations involved in the conflict. Keeping the populace in the dark was a requisite.
The actions of the individual are what brought about the first World War. One man on the trigger, or in the case of Bowes’ grandfather: one set of hands in the munitions factory. Again, Trumbo writes in ‘Johnny Got His Gun’ about his main character in hospital with only his thoughts to preserve his sanity reflecting on that single shell being lovingly polished in a German factory that he had a date with. It’s fatalistic, yes, but consider that one of the formats this record comes as is a bullet shaped USB drive… a bullet with one’s name on it indeed. It becomes clearer with each listen I give ‘Millions of the Mouthless Dead’ what the real objective of the Great War was and just how lucky anyone who came out the other end of it were.
Every single time you begin to let your guard down or entertain any thoughts of life those guns rumble yet again; strewn across battlefields the multitudes were cut down… Attrition, I feel, have been spending their entire career building to the release of this album. If there’s one constant I hear again and again about WW1 it’s that towards the end of it things had come down to a stalemate which could only be broken through a war of attrition. Inch by inch the bloody ground grew even bloodier; Joe in his trench and William shoring up defenses outside of his, one character fictional the other real but the outcome remained the same: in 1917 the world just hadn’t had enough killing yet and so more young men would be thrown to the machines. Sanity no doubt became a precious commodity for those involved.
Anni Hogan’s subdued yet forceful playing I feel is meant to personify this inner struggle and she acquits herself well, the dread and tension cascade down upon you like a dogfight far up in the skies while whistling projectiles bring death and destruction into the midst no matter how fortified and dug in your position is. Did she compose these parts with shattering glass in mind? The effect is immediate and rattles one’s nerves expertly.
I think history has shown the leadership of these armies were anything but experts, rather they seemed to aspire to lofty deeds being put down in songs or the ceremonial praise of the monarchs. All for empire, yet you in the trenches will get none. For men such as William Bowes, this was a matter of life and death which no amount of patriotism could obscure. And on that subject, this release is also a timely one as once more those same saber rattling ‘men of influence’ are baying like ravenous pigs for the blood of others. Flags are being unfurled and speeches prepared… watch out, little guy, they mean to come for you soon.