Unpopular Advent 2019 – Day 1

Diamond Family Archive – ‘Teigngrace’ from ‘Black Autumn’ LP.
Alula Down – ‘Three Ravens and Three Small Birds’ from ‘Betwixt and Between 5’ cassette.

As mentioned back in June of this year, Diamond Family Archive is essentially Lawrence Collyer, a wide-eyed and magnificently, wildly bearded gent prone to making sonic collages taped together via the contents of a dusty wooden drawer filled with assorted electronic circuits built into rusty biscuit tins. This may strike you as either the most hideous prospect in the history of performed/recorded music, or as a signifier of magikal weird folk wonder. Whilst there was a time when my own opinion would have been firmly the former, if there is a narrative to bind together this 2019 advent series (there isn’t) it would be that during the year my world tilted somewhat such that my thoughts now lean significantly towards the latter.

It was a great pleasure then to see a new Diamond Family Archive record appear in the second half of 2019, building on the interest piqued from that live experience. Several numbers on the ‘Black Autumn’ collection certainly follow the stretched-out template of that live performance: Just under seven minutes for the terrific, naturalistic ‘Good Animals Are We’ and ‘Coo Coo’; up to eight and a half for the dense, squally, drenching cacophony of album closer ‘The Opposite Of Blind’. It’s the shorter album opener ‘Teigngrace’ I come back to most often however, a fact that is surely as much to do with its rooting in the local reference of place (Teigngrace being a small village/parish in my adopted home county of Devon) as to the fact that it is a recording that vibrates with the dusty sunlit streaked resonances of church halls and chapel intimacies. There are creaks and crackles, appropriately ochre sounding tones and eerie echoes of distant wood smoked choral wraiths. All of it leaves me feeling unsettlingly suffused with the textures of nature and keen to hear more in the year ahead.

Keen to hear more too of Alula Down, whose delightful 2018 ‘Homespun’ set I picked up after seeing them play at that same show in Cornwall. I wrote at the time that if Alula Down were part of a so-called ‘Avant-Folk’ scene, then ‘Homespun’ was assuredly more ‘folk’ than ‘avant’. It wasn’t meant pejoratively, and the appearance of new recordings later in 2019 certainly pointed to a journey into stranger realms. Clocking in at a breath over fifteen minutes in length, the ‘Three Ravens and Three Small Birds’ recording (on the Betwixt And Between cassette shared with Jacken Elswyth) is, significantly, much more in keeping with their live experience, combining as it does four separate pieces woven into one delicious indulgence.

That indulgence is a breath, a whisper, a filigree shadow. The sound is barely there, just the rudiments of textures provided by tape loops of thrumming electric pylons and field recordings of birdsong, on top of which repeat the simplest of folk refrains. Binding it all together is Kate Gathercole’s exquisite voice, a folk vocal performance that treads the line between bewitchment and bereavement. Yet whilst it would be easy to focus attention on Gathercole’s contribution, Mark Water’s restrained playing compliments it perfectly. A balance is struck. An acknowledgment that Less Is More. A willingness to pursue emptiness to its beguiling, seductive end point.

The sound of Alula Down then is the sound of folk music deconstructed and put back together with just the barest of rudimentary notes. This is how it goes, but only just. Alula Down is folk music, erased.

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