Back in the old days, when an album cover and a name were enough for a chance purchase, this is the album you'd bring home to hear from a band called something like The Physics of Meaning. With silhouettes of a winged creature and a snake on the front and back covers, respectively, it portends a fantastic tale whose drama rolls in like summer stormclouds, dark, sudden and fierce. You wanted to explore.
Snake Charmer and Destiny at the Stroke of Midnight is the second album by Daniel Hart's loose musical collective, Chapel Hill's The Physics of Meaning. Sometime violinist to St. Vincent, John Vanderslice and—more to the point—The Polyphonic Spree, Hart delivers a moody, dynamic epic here, its swooning, fevered, 12-song course often seeming better-suited for the theater than the club. Like the Spree, Hart likes big tapestries and stages and screens. But if the Spree once made Jesus Christ Superstar, Hart's latest is Tristan und Isolde.
Indeed, this richly orchestrated rock-opera focuses on a pair of seemingly star-crossed lovers, who, in a familiar glyph, discover each other only to be pulled apart. Hart employs 20 additional instrumentalists and almost as many vocalists on an album whose scope and dynamics suggest a major motion picture. Its ambition recalls the progressive rockers of the '70s, and Hart is, not coincidentally, also a student of classical music, fashioning several moments of elegant delicacy showcasing such influence.
Though the album definitely rocks at points—like the trilling-cello that's the racing heartbeat beneath "No More Sleeping in the Shadows"—those moments have quieter counterparts, even within the same song. On tracks such as the harp- and harmony-driven lullaby "Around the Bend," the cinematic swell feels almost Hollywood.
This isn't a strict criticism, though, as Snake Charmer is wonderfully crafted and gracefully executed. But its pacing and texture are considered enough to risk becoming lost as background music. This is music that you listen to, which might sound strange, except music's more an accessory or soundtrack these days than the central locus. People don't want to explore as much. Like his rich lyrical metaphors ("Where's the snake charmer who can cure the venomous heart?") and multi-movement passages, Hart's latest requires time and attention to fully digest. Effort, though, is a chief constituent in most things of value.