Back in 2008, Houston premier pop string quartet Two Star Symphony was tapped to provide the soundtrack for the Dominic Walsh Dance Theatre's ballet version of Shakespeare's most bloody work, Titus Andronicus. The play is pretty much Julius Caesar as conceived by Eli Roth, featuring mutilation, rape and cannibalism in addition to lots of regular murder. Three years later, Two Star Symphony is finally releasing the soundtrack to Titus Andronicus for their fans.
"Working with the ballet was a challenging experience," says violinist Jerry Ochoa, who dropped by Rocks Off's office to deliver the album and chat a bit about the work. "None of us are classically trained. We never went to music school. So we basically had to invent a code of where to stop and start when rehearsing with the dancers."
The album is a brilliant and thoroughly disturbing work. From the very beginning, the movements are bold and flowing, seamlessly easing into each other the way a good Tchaikovsky ballet does. That's where the comparison ends, however. There is little else to connect the graceful world of most classical ballet and Two Star Symphony's latest opus.
Instead, you have 20 songs that you can never quite comfortably appreciate the beauty of. If you're like us, part of the discomfort is the mutilated face of Gabrielle Nilsson staring up at you from the album cover with pleading eyes as four hands sew her lips shut. The other part of it, though, is simply the way every note seems to drip with blood.
That is the image that plays constantly in our mind as we listen to the disc, a steady flow of blood that constantly threatens to drown everyone around it. Indeed, this image is something Ochoa was reaching for. The inner sleeve of the disc is white background with blood pouring don it.
"I took a white piece of cardboard," says Ochoa, "And I slowly dripped stage blood down it while filming it. The inner sleeve is a screen cap of that film. The actual footage will be projected behind us throughout the CD release on a constant loop."
That, friends and enemies, is metal as fuck, and it's not the only thing about Two Star Symphony that is. At the CD release, a tattoo artist will be on hand to offer free tattoos of the Two Star Symphony logo (A cat with two small pentacles above its head). Ochoa sports one on his left inner forearm.
Of all the tracks from Titus Andronicus, "Rape" stands out; you know when a band names a song "Rape" they aren't reading any funny books. The song was the soundtrack of the rape of Titus's daughter Lavina by Chiron and Dimitrius, who then try to ensure her silence about that act by cutting out her tongue and severing her hands.
The track is... it's just wrong. The violin lines start low and sinister, and the increasing, brutal rhythm of the bow as the song moves faster and faster brings to mind the primal rhythm of sex and all the fractured form of assault. It builds, builds, builds, until you can't take another minute of its horrible, bald evil.
Then it stops, and for the first time in the recording we hear human voices. There is laughter over pitiful wailing. Jesus Christ, listening to this song is worse for your soul than reading House of Leaves.
There is at least one moment of solace on Titus Andronicus. Not long after "Rape" comes "Off Into the Quiet," a harp-based song led by Margaret Lejeune on a break from her percussive cello playing. (What other kind of cello playing would you expect from a player whose main musical influence is Dr. Dre?). "Off Into the Quiet" is a much-needed moment of peace in the album, pity it comes so late.
Even here, though, all is not well. Maybe we're prejudiced because the only real harp piece we know is the angelic overture to Final Fantasy, but in this tune even the instrument of angels seems tuned too sharp, like the strings themselves are being tortured. It's beautiful, harp music generally can't be anything else, and Two Star Symphony executes the track with consummate prettiness, but you just can't forget what's gone before.
And then there's the finale, "Feast." Anyone who's read a Shakespeare tragedy knows how they end. Everyone but one person must die, but here Will was trying to up the ante to compete with all the bloody revenge dramas that were so popular in the 16th century. In the last scene, Titus has his daughter's rapists served to their mother and the emperor for dinner.
Though "Rape" holds the title of most upsetting track on the album, "Feast" is by far the most unsettling. Everything about it screams profane. The melodies dart back and forth through the shadows like some kind of gang of serial killers, never letting you see them except out of the corner of your eye. But all around you is the evidence of their bloody intention. It's a hell of a way to end a show, and Two Star Symphony pull it off with a final crimson exclamation point.
This is a very good CD from a band that for 10 years has done little but exemplary work. It is however, a work that will give you bad dreams. They're good songs about awful, awful things. You have been warned.
Before Ochoa left us, he mentioned that Two Star Symphony is itching to get into the film soundtrack business. Well, Rocks Off has this to say to any aspiring horror filmmakers out there. If you don't hire this group to score your mayhem, then you're probably not smart enough to be in the film industry.
Give these guys a couple of chainsaw murders and a death mask, and we guarantee that your audience will never hear a stringed instrument again without making sure all the doors are locked.
Two Star Symphony releases Titus Andronicus Saturday at Spring Street Studios.
Keep the Houston Press Free... Since we started the Houston Press, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Houston, and we would like to keep it that way. Offering our readers free access to incisive coverage of local news, food and culture. Producing stories on everything from political scandals to the hottest new bands, with gutsy reporting, stylish writing, and staffers who've won everything from the Society of Professional Journalists' Sigma Delta Chi feature-writing award to the Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism. But with local journalism's existence under siege and advertising revenue setbacks having a larger impact, it is important now more than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" membership program, allowing us to keep covering Houston with no paywalls.