Thursday, 1 September 2011

I A Moon and As The Crow Flies

Two of my favourite groups or artists have recently released fantastic new albums: The North Sea Radio Orchestra with I, A Moon and The Advisory Circle with As The Crow Flies. The North Sea Radio Orchestra are a 10 piece chamber group who blend classical arrangements with folkish pop to produce a quintessentially English music. They have previously set the words of English (and Irish) poets such as Blake, Hardy, Tennyson and Yeats, but here the lyrics are all written by Sharron and Craig Fortnam, the married couple who are at the heart of the group. They tend to relate astronomical imagery to the inner state of the individual, generally conveying a sense of dreamlike detachment, of orbiting weightlessly some way above the Earth’s surface (as the titles I A Moon and The Earth Beneath Our Feet would suggest). There is an air of discorporeality which pervades the songs, which suggests that this is music for the head and the dreaming mind rather than the body – which is not to say that you couldn’t dance to it.

The album opens with a chiming vibraphone chord before Craig Fortnam’s plucked, classical guitar chords are introduced, instantly familiar from previous North Sea Radio Orchestra records. The bassoon, clarinet and strings soon colour in surrounding harmonies and complete the customary components of the Orchestra’s sound. Sharron’s vocals are at their most Kate-ish (Bush, that is), with similarly slurred r’s and the hint of a suburban London tone. The Morpheus Miracle Maker of the title seems to be some sort of dream recording machine, establishing the album’s vaguely science fictional air. I A Moon twins organ and tuned percussion (vibraphones and celestes) to produce a late Medieval or early Renaissance feel. You could imagine David Munrow bringing his full panoply of early music instruments to bear on this tune. It creates an appropriate ambience for Sharron Fortnam’s slightly melancholic music of the spheres, the lyrics painting the self as heavenly body. Guitar Miniature No.3 (numbers 1 and 2 can be found on the debut album and its follow up Birds) unfolds in a stately fashion over a humming organ drone. Heavy Weather is a gently swaying shanty charting a seafaring trip, with the refrain of ‘So, heave-ho, down below we go’ suggesting that it’s a voyage inward upon the ship of the self as a much as a material journey. Percussion and organ back Sharron’s vocals, re-inforced from time to time by viola, cello and piano, periods of calm interspersed with the deeper swells of stormy weather. The organ goes off-kilter at some point, suggesting that we are drifting from our course, but brass is re-introduced towards the end to wake everyone up again and steer us true with a full, swaying singalong shanty.

Berliner Luft is an instrumental starting off with bassoon and clarinet outlining its jagged melody. It sounds very Zappa-ish (via Stravinsky), and the title is perhaps a nod to Frank’s Holiday in Berlin from the Mothers’ Burnt Weenie Sandwich LP (a track which follows on from Igor’s Boogie, his tribute to Stravinsky). The xylophone echoes the playing of Ruth Underwood on some of Zappa’s 70s records, One Size Fits All in particular. This piece has a new sound, too, with a synthesiser adding an electronic element to the Orchestra’s previously predominantly acoustic palette. As it develops, the Zappa comparisons fade away, with emotive strings introducing a British pastoral element in the manner of George Butterworth or Vaughan Williams. Chimes at the end of the track lead us directly into Morpheus Dream, another instrumental which refers back to musical themes from Morpheus Miracle Maker. Here, a reverb enlarged cello entwines its melody above and below a string drone. Chimes and cowbells at the end once more lead us straight into the next track, making this something of a mini three piece suite. The Earth Beneath Our Feet is a song of disembodied flight in which Sharron’s yearning vocals are backed largely by the strings of guitar, cello and viola. The arrangement draws great emotional power from allowing these instruments to drop out at an appropriate moment, leaving the voice accompanied only by percussion, before building up once more. Ring Moonlets is a joyful instrumental, its silvery melody played on gliding synth, haloed with glittering celeste, an organ drone suggesting the earth passing by below. When Things Fall Apart (a Yeats reference?) furthers the astronomical metaphor, with comet tails, moon valleys and ‘the beautiful endless night’. There are some magical harmonic shifts here of the kind at which the Orchestra are particularly adept. Initially a duet between Ben Davies’ piano and Sharron Fortnam’s self-harmonising vocals, the introduction of cello and viola colours the song with a Delius or Debussy style pantheistic romanticism. Finally, we go out on the joyous surge of Mitte der Welt, whose German title alludes to its Krautrock (or, perhaps more appropriately in this context, kosmische musik) feel, with the gently driving organ, synthesiser and percussion conjuring up the spirit of Cluster and Harmonia. All the instrumental forces join in to bring the album to a rousing conclusion.

The Advisory Circle’s (aka Jon Brooks’) As The Crow Flies, on Ghost Box Records, is graced by a wonderful Julian House cover design. The album opens with a audio cut up, radio pips interrupted by the slightly ill-tuned voice of the imaginary government body which gives Brooks’ project its name announcing itself and declaring, with a mixture of reassurance and authoritarianism, ‘we make the decisions – so that you don’t have to’. The first piece proper, Now Ends the Beginning, times us in with some descending chimes, which are juxtaposed with overlapping, descending melodic lines, the whole giving the hypnotic feel of a tune being set in permanent, circling motion, winding up and down again and again. Of all the Ghost Box artists, Brooks has the greatest ear for melody, and this is immediately evident on Here! In the Wychwoods, in which the songlike lines unwind over a shimmering chordal background. The synth sounds on this LP are redolent of the mid-to late 70s and even early 80s period. The Radiophonic Workshop perhaps inevitably comes to mind, but in the form of composers like Paddy Kingsland and Peter Howell rather than the usual suspects, Delia Derbyshire and John Baker. The whistling, flute like sounds on this track and Innocence Elsewhere remind me of the soundtracks to the late Tom Baker and early Peter Davison Doctor Whos – stories such as The Keeper or Traken, Logopolis and Castrovalva, with music produced by Roger Limb and Peter Howell. Paddy Kingsland’s theme for The Changes is also a touchstone, finding echoes in Everyday Hazards and Modern Through Movement. As ever, imaginary 70s TV programmes flicker into being in the minds eye. There is a lovely set of screenshots for invented programmes inside, all of which share the common element of a rising or falling disc of sun or moon, and thus appear to form some kind of pagan televisual continuum. The frames from As The Crow Flies in particular evoke a mystically minded archaeology programme presented by a wild-haired professor with a bagful of eccentric theories on the real meaning of Neolithic burial sites. After the lift off provided by a reverb enhanced clarinet glissando, we follow the crow’s flight on the wings of a Neu-ish synth riff. The crow isn’t the only bird with magical associations appearing on the album. Learning Owl Reappears begins with an authoritative BBC-style voice explaining to us why our assumption that the traditional twit-twoo is the tawny owl’s song is wrong. The ensuing music gives us a moonlit melody against which we can picture silent forms gliding through pine forests. It all ends with a little upward gliding arpeggio, suggesting a graceful landing for a branch roost. TV music of a different stripe is conjured with Ceridwen, in which the carefully picked, waltz-timed guitar chords with synthesiser backing evoke a mildly psychedelicized version of Freddie Phillips’ music for Trumpton, Chigley and Camberwick Green (no Brian Cant vocals, though – maybe some other time).

Brooks dedicates a track to his friend Trish Keenan, who passed away at the start of the year. The Patchwork Explains has a haunted but uplifting atmosphere, lighter than air scales ascending heavenward over gently propulsive Kraftwerky rhythms. He could equally have dedicated We Cleanse This Space to her. It evokes an East European fairy tale film with its percussive, pattering Arabic drum, flutes and chanting children echoing in the acoustic of what sounds like a large cave (or one of Pauline Oliveros’ underground water cisterns), and a final, closing of the storybook line: ‘and they were afraid no more’. There is a new age shimmer to some of these tracks, in particular Innocence Elsewhere, with its wind chime stardust and synth wash chords and pure-toned whistle sounds. It all goes a little off at the end, however, with the sound of a frog or toad croaking to remove any crystal-gazing associations. Unforgotten Path, too, with its background wave or wind susurrations , gently struck chimes and whistling synth lines has the sound of one of the tapes you used to find in new age shops from Totnes to Glastonbury, probably with subliminal messages telling you that you were at one with everything and everyone. Brooks has a great ability to produce melodies of affecting melancholia, too, which dig deep into the wells of yearning nostalgia for times past, as evidenced in Beyond the Wychelm. With an underlying bed of a Steve Reich, Different Trains pulse and echoing mandolin-style chords, the portamento-slurred notes of the gossamer tune weightlessly drift and settle down. A tune for the bitter sweet atmospheres of late summer. The turning of the Wheel of the Year is suggested by a repetitive, sequenced arpeggio in a slightly less demonstrative and upfront Tangerine Dream style, with the melody played on what sounds like a monophonic synth, each metallic, spring-like note carefully and singularly picked out. The final track, Lonely Signalman, takes its opening quote from the 1982 British Rail film Sam The Signalman, which can be found on the bfi dvd The Age of the Train (volume 7 in its British Transport Films Collection). It’s in the Devon library system if you’re curious and happen to live down this way. Sam, played by Frank Middlemass in typically avuncular style, tells young children how to avoid certain death by observing a few rules at the level crossing. On the bfi discs, this comes shortly after Peter Purves has put on his serious voice to show children how messing about on railway lines to impress your mates can leave you hideously maimed for life, and a disastrous sports day taking place by a railway cutting and tunnel has demonstrated just what would have happened to that wounded runner had Jenny Agutter not waved her pants at an approaching train to stop it in The Railway Children. This is another one of Brook’s melancholy tunes, and its mood is enhanced by wistfully vocodered vocals repeating that ‘signalman lives all alone’. This inevitably brings to mind the classic BBC ghost story adaptation of Charles Dickens’ The Signalman, and this track could provide the theme to a modern (circa early 80s) updating, with DMUs rather than steam engines. A final discordant downward strum inside a piano provides a sudden and sinister ending. Has the loneliness got too much for Sam? Did he see something which he wished he hadn’t? The Advisory Circle leave us with one final message before we end this excellent album, and I offer it to you, too: ‘Look after yourselves – mind how you go’.

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