How does a musician end up spending over three years immersing himself in the detailed history of Hannibal Barca, writing and recording an album based on the storied Punic military commander?
In 2011, Cole Bee Wilson was living in Austin, TX. Having recently built a home studio, Wilson was itching to record new music. He tried. He pushed, but hit the wall that is writer’s block. Muses that had once guided him felt overdone and insignificant.
In the midst of the tormenting bout with writer’s block, a random game of Words with Friends opened a door. As it does, the app suggested a game against an old high school friend that Wilson had been out of contact with. Sparked by that suggestion, Wilson investigated into what his friend had up to. In the process, he came across a quote.
“I will either find a way or make one.” —Hannibal Barca
From that simple encounter, Wilson plunged into the history of Hannibal. His prior knowledge was like that of most of us—essentially limited to the fabled feat of Hannibal’s army crossing the alps with elephants. The immersion began with the wikipedia page. The more he read, the more he wanted to read. With a new library card in hand, he dug deeper, picking up a stack of historical texts on the subject of Hannibal and the Punic Wars. The stack even included a self-help book, Hannibal and Me: What History’s Greatest Military Strategist Can Teach Us About Success and Failure.
Deeply invested in the story of this larger than life historical figure, Wilson set out not just to retell the saga, but to create an album that embodied the spirit of Hannibal and his arduous journey. As a multi-disciplinary artist who’s possibly even more interested in the process than the final product, Cole Bee Wilson didn’t pursue the traditional path towards recording what would become H. Thunderbolt. (Barca translates to Thunderbolt in the Punic language.)
In the creation of the record, Wilson pursued parallels with Barca’s often strenuous journey through monumental landscapes. In doing so, he set out on his own trek across the country, recording in a vast variety of terrains that echoed Hannibal’s own odyssey. Enlisting his own small army of collaborators as he traveled, Wilson led with an understanding of Hannibal’s philosophy in which he allowed room for his generals to improvise—a far cry from the restrictive strategy of other leaders of the time period.
Within the 16 tracks of H. Thunderbolt, no detail has been approached lightly. Instrumentation varies as Hannibal’s army progresses through alternating landscapes. Cold mountain ranges are given a chilly atmosphere via the use of metallic-based instruments, while clarinets provide the air of that frostbitten wind.
In representation of when the great master general Hannibal found his abilities restricted, on “Friends at Zama” a talented pianist’s hands are duct-taped into claws, limiting his ability play with his usually effortless precision and versatility.
In one of the more extreme moments during the creation, a beautiful, fully-functional piano was thrown into the way of total destruction in the making of “In Spite of the Great Delayer”. As a sledgehammer crashed down upon its polished wood veneer, it shattered into pieces with the breathtaking gasps of the thousands of soldiers. While the use of a previously broken piano may have created similar sonic results, Wilson chose to work with a fully-functional piano to represent the sanctity of life lost within the massive death toll of the Battle of Cannae.
Despite a creation process and muse of such epic proportion, H. Thunderbolt is an unexpectedly subtle listen. From the slow opening drones of “From A Burning Bed”, there is a heavy tension. Setting the wheels in motion, it feels like a daunting task is ahead. Forward motion is not reached without resistance.
On “Waiting On A Boat” that tension builds as strings are hesitantly bowed. The deep roar of the cello provides a feeling of an impending doom. Wilson’s vocals are cautious, dry, contemplative.
That early tension gives way to release on “I am Coming for You”. The wispy sound of brushed drums conjure images boots stepping through a textured ground. Halfway through, as Wilson mournfully sings “I am coming with everything I have, to take it all away from you”, the song erupts with a triumphant roar. No longer contemplative, it becomes a forceful warning.
“Cul du Traversette” is built upon an atmosphere of vibraphones, xylophones, clarinets, field recordings of grackles. As the temperature drops, Wilson attempts to will his troops on through the frozen setting.
Introducing itself with a mournful demeanor, “Between Their Bones” transitions late from sorrowful to an angst-ridden state reminiscent of classic emo before once again departing towards a quiet somber state.
On “Dye the Banks”, Wilson relinquishes his lead role, giving way for one of the album’s most memorable tracks. Over the celestial strings of Caitlin Brothers’ harp and emotive french horn of Jenni Wieland, Amelia Stickney and Megan Burns sing in harmony, delivering an angelic quality to the song.
Drums approach with a sense of purpose a song later on “In Spite of the Great Delayer”. A textured unease is presented via a combination of gamelan and prepared piano. The drums pick up pace, growing nearer, growing louder. Chaos arrives, and with it a piano is smashed into pieces with a sledgehammer. The song ends abruptly, giving way to the roaring guitar of “Goodbye Cannae.” Another major album highlight, the song is a soaring ballad that’d be fit to serve the roll of a triumphant closer if not for existing around the halfway mark.
Like the eye of a hurricane, “Bath House I” presents an ominous midpoint to H. Thunderbolt. Within a minimal composition of guitar and drums, Wilson sings achingly while backed by the harmonies of Stickney and Burns. From the minimalism rolls in the expansiveness of “Bath House II.” Guitar and drums begin the spirited forward march, soon to be accompanied by the vibrating body percussion vocals of Wilson, Stickney and Burns. Then, in comes the brass as the rhythmic tune continues its magnification.
Following the uplifting vibe of “Bath House II”, H. Thunderbolt cautiously moves on into the gloomy, mysterious setting of the instrumental “Lions”. Field recordings of children playing accompany Wilson and his banjo on “The strength you so desperately need.” I may be weird, but I can’t help but feel the minimal ballad has a bit of a “Rainbow Connection” vibe to it.
From there, doom besieges H. Thunderbolt on the thunderous “Heads In My Hands”. A devastating mix of guitars, drums, keyboards collide, erupting with a colossal barrage. Amongst it all, the cries of elk can be heard within the sounds of struggle.
Backed by a moving string section featuring viola, cello and violin, Wilson returns to a place of somber inflection on “Thunderbolt Come Home”. That mournful mood continuous on with “Friends at Zama” as H. Thunderbolt comes to terms with its looming finality. The piano ballad is accompanied by an air of uncertainty as the ivory of a piano is tickled with compromised hands.
The finale “Poison Ring” is the sound of an eerie serenity as the fresh aroma of death wafts over a fatigued earth. The tiring journey reaches its conclusion, not with a triumphant bombast and celebration, but rather an exhausted gasp and quiet relief.
In the not too distant past, Cole Bee Wilson was a central figure of 25-piece Santa Fe band The Apple Miner Colony. The band’s works took an Americana sound on a dynamic ride that could venture from creaky quiet to roaring magnificence. While H. Thunderbolt is very much a return for Wilson working in collaboration with an army of collaborators, it’s a much more restrained effort. He’s learned with time that to lead best often means to relinquish control in order to allow the creative abilities of his collaborators prevail. This is something that also made Hannibal unique amongst his contemporaries.
Concept albums often push so hard towards grandeur that they often become bloated with an unnerving self-importance. So, while there’s undoubtedly a sense of grandeur throughout the record, it’s presented with far more subtlety than expected given the context. It’s this restraint that allows H. Thunderbolt to exist as the type of slow burner that develops within repeated returns.
For as much as it is an album conceived with a very unique and encompassing process, it’s also an album that is not defined by the process. So, while the context provides a certain insight into the creation, it’s not at all necessary in order to listen to and ultimately enjoy the record.