Unpopular Advent 2019 – Day 7

The Leaf Library – ‘Hissing Waves’ from ‘The World Is A Bell’ LP

If Rozi Plain is stunningly adept at making succinct statements of Space-Folk-Techno-Psych-Pop then The Leaf Library shrug off notions of brevity and go all out for extended evocations of those same inner and outer spaces with the lengthy yet never sprawling ‘The World Is A Bell’ set. As with Rozi Plain, the landscapes that The Leaf Library inhabit are those liminal ones between urban and rural. They are those spaces where technology impinges and perhaps, for a moment in time, dominate, yet where too there feels an inevitability of that domination ultimately breaking down under nature’s relentless strength. As such it feels a strikingly contemporary record, utterly in tune with the tensions and conflicts that permeate our societies. Yet is is hardly a record that sounds tense. Instead it is a record that seeks calm in those divergent impulses between nature and technology, between urban and rural, between, I suppose, ’remain’ and ‘leave’ (in/from what, to where and why feel like the roots of everything, everywhere).

Ultimately too though is a record that simply sounds exquisite and never more so than on the near seven minutes of ‘Hissing Waves’. This is a piece that vibrates in the air above us, shimmering like summer heat haze above the distant hills, Steiglitz clouds hovering in the high atmosphere. It inhabits a landscape where Stereolab may dominate but where there is more than enough expanse for other Mahogany tinged elements to set up home and linger. And so ‘Hissing Waves’ slips over and around itself, wrapping us in lustrous sunlight refractions and hazy woodsmoke tendrils. It grabs hold of our psyche and leads us into a groove of deliciously tethered delirium on our inner dancefloors, disco-balls of moonlight sparkling above us all the while. We abandon ourselves to the bliss and hold our fingers on ‘repeat’.

Unpopular Advent 2019 – Day 6

Rozi Plain – ‘Dark Park’ from ‘What A Boost’ LP

If there has been a theme to the opening five days of this advent series then we would likely identify it as being one that takes in notions of Folk traditions given contemporary spins, often mining the more rustically psychedelic corners of that landscape. Rozi Plain certainly fits with this theme in some ways, yet also crucially acts as a bridge to a land where the threads are perhaps a little more space age and a little less earth-bound and organically rooted. On ‘What A Boost’ it feels as though Rozi Plain is drifting out into a space (inner and/or outer) where space itself is the vital ingredient, a space punctuated by carefully positioned sounds that sequence themselves in gently, bitter-sweetly seductive simplicity. Like Alula Down, it feels as if Rozi Plain is stripping songs down to their barest motifs which she then drips in artfully executed repetitive phrases into our psyches. At times it feels like Stereolab pulled back from their drive into motorik grooves and diverted down a path where those grooves are laid by generations of footsteps mixing with electric pulses from overhead pylons. The invisible is made audible, but barely so. So there is groove to ‘What A Boost’ but it is also the kind of groove laid down by Young Marble Giants all those years ago, which is to say a groove created by void, a groove created as much by what is left out than what is placed on the canvas.

Nowhere is this more clearly heard than on the wonderful ‘Dark Park’ where it sounds as though Rozi Plain is eating noddemix in the long grasses, gazing into a creeping dusk that wraps around us with delicious gloom. It’s been suggested in the past that there was always a distinct connection to be made between Young Marble Giants and the sounds of minimal techno music and this is certainly a thread that seeps through into ‘What A Boost’ and the ‘Dark Park’. Phone signals diminish and dip out of contact, detaching us briefly from our electronic worlds and insisting on a more earth-bound connectivity before slipping back. And forth. And back and forth. And back.

In this ‘Dark Park’ and throughout ‘What A Boost’ Rozi Plain seems to suggest that whilst our contemporary societies seem to be insisting on us taking up distinct, oppositional stances, perhaps the answer to our happiness and prosperity lies more peculiarly balanced within the space between. We can have this and we can have that, but only if we acknowledge and embrace the tensions and contradictions between. It’s a difficult, delicate act to pull off, but as Rozi Plain demonstrates, it’s an act worth striving for that, when it comes off, is compelling and beautiful.

Unpopular Advent 2019 – Day 5

Vic Mars – ‘Thistle and Briar’ from ‘Inner Roads and Outer Paths’ LP
Alison Cotton – ‘The Girl I Left Behind’ from 10”

Vic Mars’ ‘Inner Roads and Outer Paths’ set would likely have made this advent list regardless, but its place was certainly cemented thanks to Matthew Davies terrific video for ‘Thistle and Briar’. Davies’ video supports Mars’ concept of the album being an evocation of childhood memories of place (in Mars’ case, specifically that of rural Herefordshire – that county again) by adept use of archive footage showing bucolic holidays from a mythical past suffused by golden light and empty roads. What gives the video a particularly poignant pull for us, however, is that the opening shot is of The Firth Of Clyde looking over to the mountains of Arran, which is to say the landscape of our own childhoods (for better and/or for worse). This is the view we would have seen from the Dallam Towers hotel on our Saturday night visits to a friend who worked the kitchens and it is the view we would have witnessed on those summer afternoon walks to the reservoir when we watched Concorde circle and bump its way around the Ayrshire skies. This could be the view we talked about never quite witnessing whilst listening to Tracey Thorn’s ‘A Distant Shore’, and it is certainly almost exactly the scene we viewed innumerable times as we laboured over the hill on our bicycles, bound for impossible relationships and vast amounts of home-brewed beer and wine. So something special, certainly.

Mars’ record is something special too; an instrumental confection that deftly treads the line between remembered and imagined whilst also recognising the manner in which those elements essentially intermingle within any artform that mediates rural ‘history’. Mars’ music is rooted in traditional folk refrains and has a palette that is recognisably of the English Idyll, yet it is also inescapably touched by the Now in so far as it pulls in threads of dislocation and juxtapositions that are set in subtle tension. These are meditations on the places in which natural pasts have retreated from technological futures before inexorably recapturing some of that last ground. To paraphrase some of the marvellous song titles, these are the sounds of the nests in the warehouse roofs, of the broken spires and the ruined arches, the Holloways and paths beyond the towns, of the earthworks and trackways at the end of the branch lines. Glitched Suburban Psych Folk, if you will.

Mars’ is a landscape that the Clay Pipe label has been inhabiting for several years now, always with an eloquently poised palette. The works released, from records by various artists to badges and graphic narratives all feel very much a part of the same universe. That universe is unapologetically informed by nostalgia and memory of times past, yet it avoids suffering the stereotypical Leaver’s Myopia by being simultaneously informed by notions of Now and of Future. Clay Pipe, and all its various artefacts, feels utterly contemporary simply because it dares to wear these potentially contradictory stances on the same sleeve.

Speaking of sleeves, there is certainly something important about the unifying aesthetic to the Clay Pipe artwork, and Frances Castle’s gorgeous illustration for Mars’ record is a splendid Rural Contemporary piece that captures the juxtapositions of ancient and modern within the one landscape. My favourite of Castle’s illustrations from this year however must be the one gracing the 10” sleeve of Alison Cotton’s ‘The Girl I Left Behind Me’. A thirteen minute instrumental, the track was commissioned for Gideon Coe’s BBC 6 Music show and broadcast as soundtrack to Bronwen Price’s narration of the Muriel Spark ghost story during the Christmas period of 2018. It is always a pleasure to hear any work by Alison Cotton and this 10” (coupled with another 13 minute instrumental piece ‘The House Of The Famous Poet’) is certainly a crucial addition to the growing body of work that marks her (and partner Mark Nicholas with The Left Outsides) as one of the most significant players in the realm of contemporary psych-folk magik.

Unpopular Advent 2019 – Day 4

Trappist Afterland – ‘God’s Food’ from ‘Insects In Amber’ LP

Trappist Afterland (aka the prolific Adam Cole) has, over the past few years, firmly established himself as a favourite in the Unpopular firmament. Just how much of a compliment this may be is for others to decide, but what is clear is that through his performances and recordings Cole continues to explore intriguing avenues where Folk meets the realms of Gnostic spirituality and metaphysical musing.

On the ‘Insects In Amber’ set Cole again draws various collaborators into the Trappist web, notably in the form of Kitchen Cynics’ Alan Davidson on narration duties on a couple of tracks and Irish folkster David Colohon with “prayer and hymn” duties on ‘Bishop Of Armagh’, a track that explicitly brings reference to what we might call more traditional, organised religion into the Trappist landscape. Elsewhere Cole draws in a more secular reference point in Edgar Allan Poe’s ‘Dream Within A Dream’. It’s a poem that to some of us of a certain age is very much associated with the reading by Propaganda on their classic ‘A Secret Wish’ LP back in 1985 and if Trappist Afterland’s take inescapably comes off second best in a head to head comparison it’s to their credit that the poem is given a fittingly off-kilter interpretation. It’s a pared back reading with cadence and rhyming structure tweaked to fit the medium of song, and it’s a deftly delivered evocation of the notion that all is connected. Particularly so as it follows our personal favourite from the ‘Insects In Amber’ set.

‘God’s Food’ is gloriously insistent, repetitive, building on those simple refrains and layers of texture we enjoyed so much in Alula Down. ‘God’s Food’ is hymnal without being suffocatingly oppressive, ancient and modern in the same breath, and It is deeply connected to the Earth without being insufferably smug and preachy. This is no mean feat, and in these times where rabidly oppositional stances are increasingly insisted upon there is something of a balm in songs like ‘God’s Food’ and artists like Trappist Afterland reminding us quietly that it is only through embracing the connectedness (and therefore, implicitly, the contradictions) that enlightenment might be found.

Unpopular Advent 2019 – Day 3

Haress – ‘ Severing’ from ‘Haress’ LP

Based in the Shropshire Hills, the sound of Haress is built on foundations laid by David Hand and Elizabeth Still, ably abetted on this album by a number of others from groups with such intriguing names as Mind Mountain, Grey Hairs and Hey Colossus. Avenues to explore which, if the sound of Haress is anything to go by may be on the darker sides of the contemporary folk coin (the side that slides against the grimy dusts of krautrock nodding prog). There is surely also something relevant in the peculiar pull of particular geographical location to so much of this magik infused contemporary folk. Something in the energies of borderlands, of the darknesses inherent in the timeless tensions between the Anglo-Saxon and the Celtic. We have noted here in the past how Phil Rickman’s series of novels featuring Merrily Watkins have captured the essence of a magikal Herefordshire, and of course that permeates much of the sounds of the Sproatly Smith / Weirdshire collective but it clearly also snakes northwards a ways into Shropshire and is present in much of the sound of Haress.

Yet where the likes of Alula Down and Sproatly Smith closely acknowledge some more charming folk traditions, Haress seem more obviously drawn into the bleaker elements. The sound of Haress then is of a Gothic (not Goth) Folk, a folk that tingles with the spirit of Shirley Jackson, M.R. James and the aforementioned Phil Rickman. There is too the feeling of some of Ralph Emerson Meatyard’s peculiar mask photographs, a notion not dispelled by the album’s cover of a figure on a tree swing, cloaked in traditional ‘ghost’ sheet.

Musically, the record often puts us in mind of Hood, whose pre-Post-Rock landscape imaginings were so influential during the 1990s, but with an additional infusion of Metal (often in the form of razor wire running along the top of rusted corrugated iron fencing). There are times when the sound is almost pastoral, as on the lovely ‘End of Summer’, but more frequently there is a sinister, threatening edge to the music, like a soundtrack to a seedy low-fi Horror movie shot on 8mm and screened in a secluded barn that smells of spilt cider. Nowhere is this sense better captured than on the brooding six minute ‘Severing’. It is a piece that loops around a mesmerising bass phrase and a simple, clattering beat that sounds just like the wooden door to that secluded barn banging in the wind. Across this foundation sweep occasional glowering squalls of guitars, held in check just so, and a vocal that half whispers, half croaks and fully creeps us out. We are eagerly looking forward to hearing more.

Unpopular advent 2019 – Day 2

Burd Ellen – ‘Sweet Lemany’ from ‘Silver Came’ LP

One of the pieces that comprises Alula Down’s beguiling ‘Three Ravens and Three Small Birds’ is a reading of ‘Sweet Lemeny’ that beautifully pares the song down to the sparest of lines, deftly repeated as if in a lullaby. Burd Ellen, by comparison, deliver a much more traditional take on the song (presented as ‘Sweet Lemany’, after Peter Bellamy) on their super ‘Silver Came’ set. Yet if Burd Ellen follow more traditional song structures they also, like Alula Down, strip those songs back to the barest of musical ingredients.

Whilst Burd Ellen is essentially the nom de guerre of Debbie Armour, she is supported on ‘Silver Came’ by Lucy Duncan and Gayle Brogan, both of whom provide accompaniment with their voices and a variety of instruments. It would be pushing things significantly to suggest these additional voices and instruments ‘flesh out’ the recordings though, for sublime restraint is key here. Space is the vital ingredient, into which the musical elements can breathe and suggested spirits inhabit. A softly gleaming sorrow sifts through the entirety of ’Silver Came’, in which the shadows carry more subtle depths of pleasure than the edges picked out in sharp, pristine light. Those shadows layer on themselves in obfuscating mystery, yet remain so close to transparency that they are all but invisible: drifts of morning mist that dissipate as soon as they are touched, giving way to strangely homely chills and yet more uncertainty beyond.

If all that sounds monstrously full-of-itself, then rest assured that ‘Silver Came’ is never that, and perhaps all we need really say is that ’Sweet Lemany’ is six and a half minutes of voices sweetly mingling atop harmonium notes that sustain into drones to provide a succinct but surreal framing device. It is certainly a highlight in a record full of such splendid moments, each pulling at the other to draw out ‘Silver Came’ into one of the most darkly appealing pieces of contemporary psych-folk you are likely to hear for some time.

And if ‘Silver Came’ appeals, then can I suggest you also check out Lucy Duncan’s lovely ‘Wisps’ collection (recording as Luki) from December 2018 and Gayle Brogan’s numerous releases as solo artist Pefkin and as part of Barrett’s Dottled Beauty and Meadowsilver.

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.