24 Sep 2016
Reviewed by Joseph Murphy
The latest from Germany’s Sula Bassana (Dave Schmidt who is featured in the likes of Electric Moon, Zone Six, Krautzone and Interkosmos as well) departs from the bombastic guitars and thundering rhythms of 2012’s "Dark Days" or 2009’s "The Night" for subtler shades of the same fervor. For loyalists, this one shares more in common with the 2014 split with 3AM, where sci-fi synth leads reign.
"Shipwrecked" (released on Schmidt’s own Sulatron Records) feels, from the very start, like a soundtrack, a concept album perhaps exploring the world of the wonderful cover art (by Frank Lewecke), linked by the nearly all electronic instrumentation and propulsive, Krautrock-inspired programmed rhythm. So, if you’re looking for those searing guitar solos, "Shipwrecked" lacks those; instead, it meditates upon often unnerving drones and several beautiful, cinematic passages (see the eponymous track for evidence).
“Moonbase Alpha Alpha” begins with what sounds like a breeze across an alien landscape, or perhaps it’s rocketry in the air. Then there’s a voice, heavily delayed, over the phasing atmospheric tones. It’s a promising start to the record, which continues to illustrate a futuristic, alien world. “No Time : No Eternity” sounds down-right other worldly as it plods through a menacing, cavernous beat and pulsates all the way toward the melancholic string accompaniment – a sentiment closing track, “No Way,” picks up, leaving listeners with a beautifully ambiguous close to the concept.
Sula Bassana has garnered enough respect in the psych listening community that Schmidt can really do what he pleases. This is a carefully constructed and interesting turn in his solo career, one that, for this listener, invigorates fandom and keeps the Sula catalogue as interesting as it first was upon first listen.
Digital versions of Shipwrecked are available on the band’s Bandcamp page linked below, where you’ll find links, too, for CDs and the few remaining vinyl.
18 Sep 2016
Reviewed by Nathan Ford
It's a scientifically proven fact that anything with the Great Pop Supplement's name on it is 'a sure thing'. No surprise then that this Lake Ruth LP is fantastic. Fans of the likes of post-Broadcast psych-poppers Gulp, Tara King TH as well as the last Neil's Children album will be thoroughly entranced by this forward-thinking yet backwards-glancing treasure. The unusually inventive rhythm section can take a lot of the credit here, but it's the vocals of Allison Brice that really grab attention. Formerly with underrated folk-rockers Eighteenth Day of May (who released their sole album on Joe Boyd's Hannibal label and also counted the Hanging Stars' / See Sees' Richard Olson among their number), Brice proves to have a fantastically versatile voice, progressing from the Sandy Denny / Maddy Prior sounding purity of her earlier band to the more mysterious fare found here with apparent ease. Her vocals are wrapped in a wooly blanket of sonic warmth on these tracks that suits it perfectly.
Lake Ruth's three members have certainly been listening to their early Broadcast albums (and who can blame them?) but plenty of other influences make themselves known too. From "A Victimless Crime"s Goblin / Tubular Bells backbone to the ghostly folk lament "One Night As I Lay On My Bed", this is an admirably ambitious release, and while it may draw inspiration from a number of disparate sources, the whole is impressively cohesive. These types of debut often sound like a band in search of direction, but Lake Ruth have nimbly sidestepped that oh so common hurdle and created a playspace for themselves where almost anything is possible.
Highlights are numerous but special mention to "The Timekeeper's Lament" which builds an irresistible pop hook upon a complex time signature which sounds like Ray Manzarek having a seizure. And then there's the marvelous space-pop nugget "Helium", which sounds exactly like the sort of thing Kubrick's star-child would light up and listen to when they have the space-den to themselves. A marvel.
Garden Gate are ploughing a similar furrow - one that marries vintage pop recording aesthetics with melodies that are naggingly familiar but difficult to place a finger on. There's often the sense that a huge, obvious hook lies just around the corner here, but rather than play it safe, Garden Gate's Timothy Meskers lives dangerously and bypasses the obvious. In his world 1+1=3 and at no point while listening to "Dark Harvest" will you feel the need to question his sums.
Eagle eyed readers may recognise Meskers' name, and with good reason: his previous outfit White Candles released a similarly entrancing EP through our own imprint, followed by a physical release on Sunstone (who are also releasing "Dark Harvest"). This is a natural extension of White Candles' material. The press release touts names like Silver Apples, White Noise and Ruth White, and while similar sonic territory is explored here, Meskers' songs are a much more obviously melodic proposition than the more challenging work proffered by those artists. If you fancy the prospect of a world where Broadcast brought in George Martin to help on arrangements, step right in. The loose narrative involving a gothic heroine inadvertently discovering a strange doorway in a haunted mansion fits perfectly with these lovely baroque / psych-pop arrangements. Some lovely vintage synth sounds are a real treat too.
The vinyl pressing sold out before I even realised it was out (I'm kicking myself for that). But this can still be had digitally or on cassette through the Bandcamp streaming link below.
17 Sep 2016
Reviewed by Grey Malkin (The Hare & The Moon)
Singer Jo Lepine is perhaps best known to listeners here for her sterling work with The Owl Service, who almost single handedly revitalised the field of psych/acid folk over the last decade. Their recordings, from the quietly influential and mesmerising debut 'A Garland Of Song' to their stripped back, majestic swansong 'His Pride. No Spear. No Friend.' provided new breath and body for the wandering spirits of those traditional ballads that were once inhabited by the holy triumvirate of Fairport Convention, Pentangle and Steeleye Span. It is a delight then to find that this linage and muse continues unabated with 'As The Blackbird In The Evening', a magical and intimate album three years in the making that is equally recommended for both Owl Service aficionados and lovers of the psychedelic side of folk music alike. This recording is described as a 'return to her first love, that of storytelling' and it is indeed an album of characters, tales and tradition that is both ageless and utterly captivating.
The album opens with the brief but hauntingly lovely 'As The Blackbird In The Evening', a hymnal performed solo by Lepine herself. This serves to create an almost hypnotic capture and hold for the listener, deepening anticipation for the song and stories that lie ahead. The French traditional ballad 'She Is So Cold' follows, a wintry lament with Jo's ghostlike, echoed vocals framed by the sound of glistening bells and cold, arctic winds. Hugely affecting, this is a song which stays with the listener long after the track itself has finished and a genuine a sense of timelessness pervades - this feels like it could be being sung a century ago and be simply being channelled into the here and now. Next 'Grey Dolphin (Or The Earl Of Shurland's Horse') recounts the sad tale from 'The Ingoldsby Legends' of the Earl's escape from a witch's predictions of his death by the sacrifice of his loyal steed; however, Lepine cleverly and uniquely focuses the song from the perspective of the animal, wronged and condemned by his fearful master. Psych folk master Sand Snowman provides an eloquent and evocative acoustic backing that conjures both an air of melancholy and mysticism to help create a truly memorable and haunted work.
The much interpreted Border Ballad 'The Three Ravens' is given new life by Jo's immaculate solo, acapella rendition, the sense of loss and the turn of the wheel of life much in evidence here. For this listener, a keen reader of the traditional ballads who has heard various interpretations of both this text and its Scots variant 'The Twa Corbies', hearing Lepine's version is a spine tingling experience and I would not hesitate to count this one of my favourite renditions, perhaps the best. It is that special. 'Happiness Is A Porpoise Mouth', a cover of the Country Joe And The Fish number, is a masterful sea shanty replete with hurdy-gurdy, trombone, tuba and trumpet; again there is a sense of a timeless tradition being connected with here, that we could be hearing the sound of sailors on docks from a time long since past. A further Border Ballad follows with the eternal 'Tam Lin', the tale of fairy enchantment and the perilous escape of Tam and his lover from their spell. Lepine opts to recount the tale unaccompanied which proves to be remarkably powerful; Jo's vocals are as clear as running water and tinged with a deep melancholic air which perfectly suits these ancient folktales. This is true storytelling, keeping these old stories alive and vital for both the present and future generations.
Another traditional number, the Orcadian 'The Selkie O'Sule Skerry' (one which sadly rarely seems to find itself sung or interpreted in folk music circles), provides an opportunity for Lepine to duet with Philip Martin who also contributes bewitching hurdy-gurdy to the piece. A slice of musical perfection, this listener could listen to this exceedingly beautiful version of the tale of the seal people forever and a day. Otherworldly and entrancing, this has to be heard and will surely cast its spell upon any lover of The Owl Service, Sandy Denny, Shirley Collins, Anne Briggs or psych folk in general. The album closes with a spectral, live version of 'Fair Isabelle' from the Leigh On Sea Folk Festival, Lepine's soaring voice floating over hurdy-gurdy drones; you could hear a pin drop and one imagines the audience rapt and held on every word and note.
A very special album indeed and one which carries on a lineage of folk recordings that display a deep respect to the source material but are equally unafraid to interpret the material in a unique and personal manner, 'A The Blackbird In The Evening' is a truly lovely and evocative piece of work that comes highly recommended. To miss out on this album is to miss out on a psych folk treasure; seek out this album now,
Available as a download at Jo's Bandcamp page and as a limited edition CD with stunning artwork and extensive linear notes.
11 Sep 2016
Reviewed by Shaun C. Rogan
Sweden, as we all know, continues to produce more than its fair share of great music given its relatively sparse population. Lejonsläktet are the latest purveyors of slightly off-beam, vaguely mystical and blurry psychedelic pop. Following on from their impressive 45 on the always reliable Trouble In Mind last year (both sides included here), not to mention this fabulous free EP which had our editor foaming at mouth, here we have a full length debut LP (its on vinyl folks!) that scoops up some of their earlier works as well as a battery of new songs to set out a nine track tapestry of fascinating and compulsive listening.
Opener “Slapp Mig Fri” bounces over the ridge like a big friendly balloon man dispensing good vibes amidst an enveloping cloud of fuzzy guitar and watery keyboards. As an opening gambit it sure puts you in the mood for a good time. Driving instrumental “Trygghetens Rus” follows next with its combination of swedish legends Bob Hund new wave pranksterism and wordless, flashing by Beach Boys harmonising before evaporating into a vapour trail of wind chimes…I would imagine Julian Cope, driving at 120 mph on the motorway from Stockholm to Goteborg, would have this as a soundtrack – laughing maniacally all the way.
“Skogsvandringar” is a personal favourite amongst favourites with its maddeningly enticing guitar riff and Gregorian vocal intro. Its lazy yet intense and monolithic and makes me want to pull my brain out and rinse it on the banks of the Baltic. The slide guitar playing is a particularly sick delight reminding me of "Meddle" era Floyd grafted onto some outsider recording from the same era. Deadly combination of ear worm and brain injury. In fact the more I listen to it I am also caused to recall The Fall circa 1984. If they had taken more acid and less speed and were covering "Friends" by Led Zeppelin inside a giant hurdy-gurdy. This is an irresistably wonderful and frightening world being created for you by Lejonsläktet, and despite my frantic referencing, it sounds like little else I’ve heard for some time.
“Illa Gront” is another mystic trip that feeds off its predecessor and emerges slowly from shards of feedback and drone before flowering into a weird Skip Spence/Syd Barrett/Marc Bolan/Sonic Boom/Anton Newcombe acoustic led slow burner that launches at mid-point for the heavens with a burning organ line that you are hanging onto for dear life. Stunning.
“Vaderkvarn” is queasy and off-centre, replete with squiggly keyboard riff and loping rhythm driven along with nimble bass and semi-whispered vocals. Nice. “Ett Svagt Hopp Om” is psych-beat heaven – all farfisa and fuzz underpinned by driving bass, a dancefloor hit in some parallel universe for sure. Try not bobbing your head whilst listening to this one nice and LOUD. “Som Om Sanden Rinner Ut” has pagan drums and lovely Hammond splashes with an interesting line in Bolan-esque vocal delivery. Reminds me somewhat of Finnish neighbours Jarse or maybe Pollot who both put out great debut long players recently. This is a more groovy beast though and has that weird Scandinavian psych - funk thing going on. More brain fondu, dear? Don't mind if I do.
“Segla Ivag” hoves gently into view on the back of an exceptionally laid back ‘Take Fice’ rhythm – a real astronaut experience for the seasoned active listener as it orbits your rippling synapses. Beautiful and perhaps not dissimilar to a more diffuse Death and Vanilla or a more pastoral Broadcast if you really wanted some signposts. But you really don’t need them. You just need to investigate this great piece of work and let it wash over you. The ominous tones of “Du ar, jag ar, vi ar” bring things to a suitably fuzzy conclusion, sending the listener off on the golden road (to unlimited devotion).
Lejonsläktet really put it to the audience on this debut full length outing, confronting you with their soft parade, blinding you with their lamp of the cosmos. You get the feeling these guys know shit you don’t and they want to detonate it into your consciousness. 'Lejonsläktet' is as much the enactment of an ancient rite in sound as a slice of popular music squeezed onto 12” of plastic. It's a serious statement of intent. Go with it and get down with their sensurround. Now where did I put that bag of runestones?
Available as a free / name your price download through the Bandcamp link below, or on vinyl right here.
8 Sep 2016
Here's the first of our samplers since our semi-retirement. We've taken some time in our dotage with this one and got some great artists involved, including premieres of new tracks from The Greek Theatre and 8x8 from their excellent upcoming albums.
Thanks to Fredrik Wandem of Do You Dig? for the sleeve art too.
For the full 17 track sampler head over here right now. Donate to help cover our costs or download for free by entering $0. Thanks!
1. The Greek Theatre - Fat Apple (At About Noon) 07:06 2. 8x8 - The Essence 05:54 3. The Age - The Lantern 03:44 4. The Beginner's Mynd - Singing Man 02:47 5. Mike Dole - Words of the Birds 03:03 6. The Savage Blush - Wake The Dreamer 03:34 7. Diamond Incarnation - Leaking Of Our Hourglass 05:50 8. Sumner (Feat. Dave Gregory) - Picture Book 03:28 9. The Shea - First Row In Heaven 03:24 10. Distant Creatures - Escape 03:20 11. Connected View - Future Desert 02:52 12. Midwich Youth Club - Pomegranite 04:34 13. The Planets Collide - Wake Me Up When It's Over 02:57 14. Third Whale - In Dreams 03:50 15. Orsak:Oslo feat. MajaKali - Shallow Waters 08:05 16. Children of Leir - Young Man 06:10 17. Monster Killed by Laser - Curandero 04:49
6 Sep 2016
Reviewed by Nathan Ford
Up for review today are two titles that share a country of origin (Finland) and a love for the sixties, but are stylistically very different indeed.
First up is the debut album from Kuparilinna, a lovely pop gem that mines the pre-psychedelic sounds of the mid sixties, mixing in all sorts of other good stuff to create a lovely vintage sound. The lyrics are all in Finnish so I have no idea what they're on about, but the music communicates a warmth that make it a thoroughly enjoyable listen despite the language barrier.
Lead off single (and opening track) "Tuulee" sounds like Belle & Sebastian discovered vintage surf music - fantastic guitar tone here. The Belle & Sebastian comparison is one that rears its head again and again here, partially down to the arrangements, which recall B&S's earlier (better) albums, and partly due to the lead male vocal - check out the harmonsing on "Aurinko" and try not to think of Stuart Murdoch's voice.
There's not a weak moment here and lovers of dramatic sixties pop are advised to check this out straight away (there's a streaming link at the bottom of the review).
Next up is a name more familiar to you dear readers, Octopus Syng, following up their 2014 top three album of the year (according to us), with a second album for the fab Mega Dodo label. "Hollow Ghost / Rochelle Salt" is less overtly Syd Barrett / Floyd influenced than "Reverberating Garden #7" (although that influence is still evident), and is none the worse for it. The impression here is that guitarist and vocalist Jaire Pätäri has learnt his lessons well, and is continuing to evolve his own individual style of psychedelia into something unique and quite special.
It's an often dark, hallucinatory experience with lovely textured production that sees memorable tunes emerging from the swathes of dense, psychedelic fog.
This rich production creates a hazy, dreamlike experience which in all honesty did take me a number of listens to fully adjust to, but I'm very glad I persevered as I now rate "Hollow Ghost..." as "Reverberating Garden #7"s equal - something I never expected, given how much I adore that album.
The lovely, dreamy psych-ballad "Lady Florette" and the spidery guitar lines from "Echoes From The Past Centuries" are immediate attention grabbers, but it's the ease with which the album fits together that provides the biggest thrill for those willing to play the long game.
As a reviewer, it's quite common for me to spend a week or two digesting an album, then never revisiting it after reviewing. With this album, I feel like I'll be absorbing it for many months to come, and that if I was to wait for it to fully sink in you'd be waiting for months for a review. My advice for you is not to procrastinate, dive in now and start building your relationship with one of the most intriguing albums of the year.
CD, vinyl and digital are all avauilable through the Bandcamp link below:
1 Sep 2016
Reviewed by Grey Malkin (The Hare & the Moon)
The previous musical missive from Lithuanian artist, performer and composer Daina Dieva was 2015's excellent collaborative album 'Avaliai' with Skeldos (reviewed here at The Active Listener), a truly otherworldly and haunting chamber piece that reminded this writer at times of the fragile beauty of This Mortal Coil and Fovea Hex. Now, three years after its creation (due to label difficulties), Dieva's own 'Kas' drifts into the light courtesy of the Vibora label and we should be grateful that it has found a home and voice. Described by Dieva as a 'spooky trip in ritualistic dark ambient spirals and drones...an hour of timeless reflections in three parts', this is an album to get lost in, to wander through and submit to its delicate and ghostly haze. The three pieces contained herein make a suite of sorts and seamlessly and glacially flow into each other, crackling, pulsating and breathing as if alive.
Beginning with 'Šviesoj Blykšta' (which translates as 'Fades in the Light'), this twenty minute symphony of shadows opens with a distant drumbeat and a choir of Dieva's layered vocals. Almost sacred in its mood and air, the sounds reverberate amongst a growing, humming electric drone until it takes over creating an ominous and pleasingly unsettling atmosphere. The piece then becomes more spectral, more ghost like as it weaves wraith through the sound of chimes and resonating bells. Reminiscent of the work of Michael Begg/ Human Greed or Andrew Liles, this is music that takes and demands your full concentration and is in no way ambient or background in form. Choral voices return and the piece becomes a chamber movement of sorts, hugely affecting and expertly crafted and woven. These voices develop into glass like drones, monolithic and melancholy swathes of sound before quietening and beginning the next piece 'Tyloj Sirpsta' ('Ripens in Silence').
This starts with electronic static howls creating resounding notes not unlike a Tibetan singing bowl (though this work is far too eerie to be in any way meditative) as the washes of dark drones serve as a string section. Dislocated voices enter as the intensity builds; again there is a feeling of something holy here, like an electric plainsong. The pulse and increasing volume of the collecting mass of sounds and the crackling that swerves ever more frequently into view to add a shimmer of dread add up to an immense, evocative piece of work. Intimate and yet also vast, the paradoxical nature, complexity and sheer beauty of Dieva's work is fully on show here. The third, untitled piece is a dignified, drifting work of frozen purity that reminds this listener of Górecki's 'Symphony of Sorrowful Songs'; the shimmering and icy notes sounding not unlike an Arctic wind suspended and slowed to reveal the music within. As the massed sounds dissolve, a gentle crying and wailing can be heard as the song closes. This is the unbridled power of Dieva's creations, that you sit in quiet wonder, following the pieces as they take you through different aural and emotional landscapes.
Especially recommended for lovers of the afore mentioned Human Greed and Andrew Liles as well as the work of Richard Skelton and the 4AD label, 'Kas' is a work of subtle power and emotive resonance. Seek this fine release out; music of this blend of originality, creativity and beauty is a rare thing these days. You will not be disappointed.
Available now from the artist's website on CD in a gatefold sleeve with spellbinding sleevework by Arturas Rozkovas.
29 Aug 2016
Reviewed by Kent Whirlow
The Greek Theatre's debut LP "Lost Out at Sea" is absolutely brilliant and, for my money, they are the best outfit to be found on Bandcamp. So naturally, my expectations were extremely high when this lovely EP appeared. And it surely does not does not disappoint. The EP kicks off with the title track - instantly recognizable as The Greek Theatre, yet still sounding quite different from their wonderful debut. It starts with a lovely blast of trumpets, thundering drum rolls, warm soaring vocals and some nice, twangy country guitar, beautiful acoustic guitar, pedal steel - a stunningly complex track, so much going on here. Musically, I fail to see how this could not appeal to fans of Scott Walker's first four solo records.
Next up is "Stray Dog Blues", a gentle introspective song with some really sweet vocals, flute, and nice harmonizing female backing vocals. This song, too, is complex though in a rather unassuming way. With each listen, I am picking out something new from the many layers. The timing of the arrangements on this track is truly impeccable and the song has both a melancholic and pastoral feel to it.
Rounding out this gorgeous EP is the mysterious "Paper Moon", another track filled with an exquisite layering of sounds, all so cleverly constructed. They take you on a dreamlike journey from the outset with all sorts of sounds conjuring up so many intriguing thoughts and images. There's some terrific bass playing which anchors this track, not to mention some very fine guitar work. I'm truly astounded by how much they have compressed into just five and a half minutes in this last track - there is more to enjoy here than most bands can manage to deliver in an entire LP. It truly gets better with each listen, it all just resonates so beautifully.
This is easily my favourite release of 2016, and that's saying something, as it has been quite a stellar year for music thus far. Highest possible recommendation!
Editor's note - The Greek Theatre's second album isn't far away either. I've had a sneaky listen, and it won't disappoint. Stay tuned!
Stream or download the EP through the Bandcamp link below. Extremely limited vinyl available here.
25 Aug 2016
Reviewed by Nathan Ford
If the Death Waltz Recording Company are the undisputed kings of the horror soundtrack reissue biz, then Austria’s Cineploit must be their sister company in terms of contemporary artists producing new music in this field.
Two of the labels biggest hitters have new releases out to drive this point home, and for anyone new to the label, there are many fantastic places to delve in, with no better starting point than here.
First up is the second album from Sweden’s Oscillotron, AKA David Johansson (Kongh, Cult of Luna, Switchblade). You'd be right in thinking that they’re not names you’d normally see mentioned in these pages, but Oscillotron’s output is far from what you’d expect given Johansson’s day job as doom-metaller. Carrying over from Johansson’s other musical output is an oppressive doom-laden atmosphere which permeates everything here, as you’d only reasonably expect on an album called “Cataclysm”, especially one featuring an ominous image of a disintegrating planet on the sleeve.
And that sleeve couldn’t be more perfect to encapsulate the sound of this record, which is one brooding, terrifying album, but one with impeccable tunes that only very occasionally become a case of atmosphere over content. While the debut had a real Fabio Frizzi meets John Carpenter vibe, this followup is its even darker twin, showcasing an array of mellotrons and vintage synthesizers to marvellous effect. The end result suggests some sort of lost end-of-the-world soundtrack by the dream team-up of mid to late seventies Tangerine Dream and Jean Michel Jarre, although I’d be hard pressed to find anything as hair-raising as “Terminal” in either artist’s formidable repertoires.
This is certainly horror/sci-fi doom-synth at its finest.
“Themes International” is the result of a challenge that Riendeau set himself. Riendeau selected 21 different cinematic themes and set himself the challenge of picking one randomly every two weeks. He’d then write and record a piece that evoked that theme within that limited timeframe. Something has obviously rubbed off during all of the time spent studying the masters, as the twelve highlights from this experiment collected on the album are masterful examples of how studious enthusiasm can help create fresh sounds in genres associated with a bygone age.
Aside from showcasing Riendeau’s impressive compositional skills (which I’d like to hear a lot more of on future releases), “Themes International” allows a much greater glimpse into his versatility, featuring everything from exotica to giallo to spaghetti western to krautrock to electro groove, without a misstep anywhere along the way.
Despite the wide array of styles covered here, “Themes International” fits together seamlessly as a listening experience, best taken as a whole rather than scoured for highlights. That being said, I particularly enjoyed the tongue in cheek track “Ennio Morricone” (each track is simply named after the theme being evoked) – fans of Morricone’s “Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion” will love this affectionate tribute.
Orgasmo Sonore’s releases are all highly recommended, but I’d start here. And the fabulous sleeve is the work of Active Listener contributor Eric Adrian Lee, which gives us some serious proud Dad fuzzies.
Available direct from the label on CD, and don't those vinyl pressings look amazing? "Cataclysm" can also be downloaded digitally or streamed through the Bandcamp link below, while all 21 tracks from the "Themes International" project are streamable through the Soundcloud link.
22 Aug 2016
Reviewed by Mark Winkelmann
"This band sounds like group X meets group Y". We've all heard it but all too often it means a really crappy version of group X meets someone who once read about the Fall in the NME. At best, this lazy descriptive technique is mildly helpful. At worst .... we've all been disappointed by music that didn't meet the hype. So if I tell you the things that Kay Silverman's "Floret Silva" reminds me of Vashti Bunyan meets Henry Cow you've every right to be wary. Except this release is quite unique, greater than the sum of its parts. So here goes with attempting to make you believe that "Vashti Bunyan meets Henry Cow" isn't the worst description of any music since the last issue of the NME hit the newstands. Assuming it even still reviews music, or there are any newstands left.
What we have here is one of the few attempts to integrate Early Music and some form of funky jazz, or is it jazzy funk? Early Music and similar strands turned up as an influence mainly with English prog groups to a greater (Amazing Blondel) or lesser (Third Ear band or maybe Jethro Tull) extent, though this usually seemed like a subset of the widespread integration of classical elements. However none of those bands made much attempt to make a crumhorn swing. It's not entirely without precedent, English session musicians recording as The Roundtable, attempted something similar albeit with more of an easy listening/exotica ting and Baroque moves were adopted by the "swinging" US group Mariano and the Unbelievables. This rather unique project which was finally issued in Japan in the mid 80s remains far more sui generis and exudes none of the whiff of cheesy commercial cash in. Perhaps the nearest fellow travellers were Circulus who set off down this road twenty years later. "Floret Silva" is however distinguished from all of these by its rigour, its austerity and perhaps also its obscurity.
A lot of reissues with a strange back story fail to truly deliver. Their obscurity is often deserved, or at least understandable. Kay Hoffman's "Floret Silva" however is going to stand or fall on the music. The story is borderline dull, no UFO abductions or grand stages on farms in the middle of cornfields. One of the album's collaborators does have form for working with Faust that we could get some mileage out of. Really though the primary composer Kay Hoffman is a student of a variety of musical styles, Bartok, minimalism and renaissance music all get a mention though the primary focus was the 12th Century Carmina Burana texts. There it is, there's not much more to say to hype the back story. They went to Italy and recorded the music, but the deal fell through and it was only issued years later. The magic and mystery comes when you hear the intoxicating and by times austere music. Beautiful voices remind me of Vashti Bunyan, though the Latin and High German lyrics have no twee hippie folksiness. Strange woodwinds, polytonality and complex time signatures remind me of Henry Cow though without the aggressively difficult extended material. I doubt there was any awareness of those acts when this was recorded though, they're just the sounds this active listener was reminded of. Other listeners are bound to identify different reference points.
I suspect there are people who'll struggle with this album, or find it inconsistent, or even an incoherent amalgamation of ill-fitting parts. If you wander in and out of the room as it plays, you'll be greeted with a wide variety of sounds from stripped-down austere voice to whirring rhythmic keyboards and strange combinations of these and other elements. Yet given time it makes perfect sense as a well realised and unique artistic vision.
P.S. As a post script, during the preparation of this review I have remembered the existence of a third fellow traveller alongside The Roundtable and Circulus: Ray Manzarek's mid 70s setting of the "Carmina Burana". More or less regarded as a joke by serious rock fans, perhaps it too is due some critical reappraisal? That's another day's work and the critical heavy lifting involved may yet be too much for any normal reviewer.