Horses of the Gods; We Wish You Health

I once reviewed a cassette with a photocopied punk-paste zine style picture of Mr Blobby as the cover, where a distraught male voice screeched, “take an overdose, ginseng!” continuously over some white noise. Thank heavens that’s in a long-lost past!

Fortunately, I’ve never had anything quite so bizarre to review since, not even this week when, Erin Bardwell messaged; “one of the drummers I do things with, Matty Bane, has a side duo project and wanted to let you know about their latest album.”

Sure, I’ve heard of Matty, seen him listed as one of Erin’s collective, trekking with them to Jamaica in 2003 to record with Recoldo Fleming at Dynamic Sounds. Further research shows he’s drummed in Bad Manners for over ten years, and is now part of Neville Staple’s From the Specials setup, headhunted from days as part of the Special Beat tour with the original rude boy.

Given this, I was naturally expecting said side-project to be reggae, stands to reason. What might’ve eased the surprise was to have pre-known of Matty’s own band The Transpersonals, a minimalistic, psych-rock outfit lounging somewhere between Pink Floyd and Spaceman 3. Still, nothing was going to prep me for what I got; We Wish you Health by Horses of the Gods.

There’s only one reason for facetiously mentioning the eccentric Mr Blobby cassette, because this is unusual too. The likeness ends there, though. “Bizarre” can connote excruciating, as with the cassette, but, as with We Wish you Health, can also imply uniquely stimulating and inimitably disparate. So much so, it’s astonishingly good. For those seeking the peculiar, those at their happiest dancing barefoot in Avebury’s morning dew, or for whom reaching the summit of Glastonbury Tor before sunrise is priority, will adore this, with jester’s bells on.

Matty teams up Mike Ballard, a media and games lecturer with a penchant for folk. And essentially this is what we ought to pigeonhole Horses of the Gods as; Somerset folk, is as near in modern terminology you’re going to get. But for comparisons I’m going to have to max my flux capacitor way beyond my usual backtracking.

If I relish in music history without the technical knowledge, I understand one has to either accept four-time pop, or untrain their ear to acknowledge other musical metres, in order to appreciate folk, classical, even jazz, but particularly the kind of sounds We Wish you Health is embracing. There’s something medieval, least pagan mysticism about the influences here, of shawms and hand-cranked hurdy-gurdies, miracle plays, and Gallican chants of plainsong. And it’s swathed with chants and poetry as if in variant West Country Brittonic tongue.

We have to trek beyond futurist Francesco Balilla Pratella’s Art of Noises theory, to an olden ambience of nature, of birdsong, storms and waterfalls. The opening track starts as a spoken-word toast and ends akin to medieval court jester entertainment, over a haunting chant. Equally passe but equally amicable is a sea shanty called Down in the Bay. Then a clocktower chime follows; left wondering if this was Dark Side of the Moon recorded in 1648. Sow In uses mellowed hurdy-gurdy to mimic what the untrained ear might deem an Eastern ambience. With a solstice theme, it’s so earthy it makes the Afro-Celt Sound System sound like Ace of Base! (Joke; I love the Afro-Celt Sound System!)

In many ways the next tune Ostara follows suit, more eastern promise yet slightly more upbeat. Consider George Harrison’s collaborations with Ravi Shanker. As the album continues, experimentation with traditional abound, obscure instruments are thrown into the melting pot; the Victorian circus sound of The Thing and I, the rural west country ditty of Digger’s Songs, in which you can almost smell spilt scrumpy as folk rise from haystacks to jig.

Throughout you’re chopping randomly at influences, this medieval court running theme, blended with an oompah band styled sound on The Whole World Goes Around, will make you want bells on your shins like a drunken Morris dancer at the village fete. Else you’re haunted by the chill of evocative soundscapes, unable to pinpoint an era this falls into. I’ll tell you now, it was aptly released at Samhain last year.

We Wish you Health may be bespoke, and some wouldn’t give themselves adjustment time, yet Sgt Pepper and Pet Sounds were famed for pushing the boundaries of what is acceptable in contemporary pop. This is a fissure to the norm, a testimony of yore, for while there’s a demonstration of newfound passion within ancient realms, it is fundamentally timeless. Though I suspect there’s myth and history behind each track, which extends the album from a set of songs to a research project for the listener.

The finale, for example, has a reference in Wikipedia; John Barleycorn, a personification of the importance of sowing barley and of the alcoholic beverages made from it, beer and whisky. Though in the House of Gods, cider gets a mention. John Barleycorn is represented as suffering indignities, attacks and death that correspond to the various stages of barley cultivation. It goes onto reprint a Robert Burns version from 1782, though stating countless variations exist; Matty and Mike use an earlier version:

There was three men come out o’ the west their fortunes for to try, And these three men made a solemn vow, John Barleycorn must die, They ploughed, they sowed, they harrowed him in, throwed clods upon his head, Til these three men were satisfied John Barleycorn was dead.

I’ve rushed out this review to make you aware of it, and because I’m so utterly astounded by its uniqueness, but fear I’m only teetering on the edge of its fascinating historical references myself. Thus, is the general nature of folk music, to dig out lost fables which once would’ve entertained young and old, and bring them to new audiences, and The Horses of the Gods does this in such a way, the negative confines and stereotypes commonly associated with folk music just melt away.

Link Tree to album


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David Gray’s Skellig; Enchantingly Sublime

Music technology bears a burden on the acoustic singer-songwriter, hopefully awaiting a practical gap in the market to sneak into the mainstream. Locked in the adolescent tantrum of the drum machine, pop charts of the late eighties were awash with electronica, hip hop, and the dawn of house, either this, or jean commercials revitalised sixties soul classics. Then, along came a short dreadlocked female singer, clasping her guitar.

Had Tracey Chapman arrived a decade earlier when Joan Armatrading was prevalent, the impact might not have had the same clout. As it was her appearance was exhilarating, a breath of fresh air, but seems sometimes acoustic artists are to pop charts as Christopher Lambert is to Highlander, there can be only one.

In 1998 David Gray’s self-released studio album, White Ladder looked as if it would be no more successful than his previous three. While renowned on the folk scene, Gray didn’t break the mainstream until its ATO re-issue in 2000. Perhaps we could speculate the charts of 98 was held hostage by Britpop, else the reign of rave was at its apex. People looked for something fresh for the millennium, and Gray’s folktronica found that gap.

Folktronica is a strapline, rather than subgenre. A causal grouping for fusing string instruments into electronic music, born at a time of public acceptance in hip hop. It was courageous, but a natural progression, and Gray was atop of the game, appearing in David Kane’s rom-com This Year’s Love, which he based a song around its title.

Like an Andy Warhol prediction, the sequel to White Ladder, A New Day at Midnight, failed to obtain the same critical acclaim, despite charting at the top, and whipping Pop Idol runner-up Gareth Gates’s debut album, which is enough for me! Exhaustion in the spotlight saw David Gray rest, and gradually fall into cult status, returning to the folk circuit.

At the millennium I was neither here nor there about David Gray. Yeah, I liked his charted songs, but entangled in denying rave had perished I sought heavier trip hop, or else a model folk formula; the two were strictly separate entities. It wasn’t until a near decade ago, reviewing a self-published book which suggested White Ladder was a revelation of pious significance, that I gave second thought to David Gray, and just how good the album was. Mind you, the flimsy autobiographical plot continued onto how, under hypnosis, the author turned out to be an incarnation of Cleopatra, so it all had to be taken with a pinch!

This is the culprit, the reason I’ve been knocked for six by his new album, Skellig, released tomorrow (19th Feb 2021.) Naturally I expected it to be pretty awesome, but hadn’t fathomed how awesome. Astounded, on continuous play and taking me on a journey for the best part of this week, I confirm its ambient, acoustic gorgeousness.

If last year’s twentieth anniversary of White Ladder saw a deluxe edition launched, but a subsequent tour cancelled due to the pandemic, Skellig counteracts; it is simply perfection for isolation, though written prior. The elements of folktronica are even more subtle than previously, with just a hint they set the scene, welcoming a sparser, shared soundscape with the atmospheric songs focussing around six-part vocals with Gray trading his signature gravel for a softer tone; mega-bliss. Though, a sense of shingle develops vocally as the album reaches a conclusion, not at Dylan level, but adjacent.

Skellig takes its name from a formation of precipitous rocky islands off the coast of Co. Kerry, the most westerly point in Ireland. Ravaged by the Atlantic, the seemingly un-inhabitable location of Skellig Michael became an unlikely site of pilgrimage in 600AD for a group of monks, who believed leading such a merciful existence, they would leave the distraction of the human realm to be ultimately closer to God.

Gray asks for no literal translation of the above, nor prescribes any religious allegiance; the story, told to him by a friend, has haunted his imagination ever since: “The more I contemplated the idea of a small group of people landing on those rocks and establishing a monastic life there, the more overpowered I became by a dizzying sense of awe. How close to God could you possibly wish to get? Life must have been unbelievably hard for them and trying to fathom the deep spiritual conviction that compelled them to escape the mediaeval world led me to acknowledge my own deepest longings to be free of all the endless human noise that we now so readily accept as being such an inescapable part of our day to day lives. Dreams of revelation, dreams of a cleansing purity, dreams of escape. Ideas that I think almost any 21st century person shouldn’t find it too hard to relate to!”

A notion which saw Gray gather his team and venture to the Scottish Highlands to live out the creation of the record. In the significant of this backstory, Skellig paints a picture with sound akin to Gogh’s Starry Starry Night. You can sense the sea crashing into the rocks of a barren Irish landmass, hear the haunting echo through the draughty halls of a desolate monastery, through multi-layered vocals, delicate Celtic guitar picks and morose piano solos.    

Written astutely and with maturity in comparison to White Ladder, subjects twist dejection into uplifting awe. Carried by a singular baritone guitar, the opening title track bobs on an ocean like a chantey, familiarising you with how it’s going to go down. From there on it free-flows thirteen tracks of blissful enchantment. While listening I noted the songs seemed short, but in checking most weigh over the four-minute mark, proof how engrossing Skellig is. Lost in its splendour it comes to a masterful finale with the graceful, All That We Asked For And More; which sums up the album perfectly. A ten from me!

Image credit: Derrick Santini

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Arcana & Idols of the Flesh: Ambience and Chamber-Prog with Swindon Composer Richard Wileman

One portion my nostalgia rarely serves, and that’s my once veneration for spacey sounds, apexed through the ambient house movement in the nineties, but not comprehensively; we always had Sgt Pepper, Pink Floyd and Hendrix’s intro to Electric Ladyland. I’ve long detached myself from adolescent experimentation of non-licit medications, lying lone in a dark bedroom chillaxing to mood music, and moved onto a full house of commotional kids; progress they call it.

Incredibly prolific, Swindon’s composer Richard Wileman might yet stir the memories, if these headphones drown out the sound of a nearby X-Box tournament. Best known for his pre-symphonic rock band Karda Estra, there is nothing vertical or frenetic about his musical approach. Idols of the Flesh is his latest offering from a discography of sixteen albums. Yet far from my preconceptions of layers of decelerated techno, as was The Orb or KLF, or psychedelic space-rock moments of my elders, which our own Cracked Machine continue the splendour of, Richard’s sounds with Karda Estra bases more orchestrally, neo-classical, as if the opening of a thriller movie. Though, so intense is this sound you need no images to provoke you.

Idols of the Flesh is dark and deeply surreal, with swirls of cosmic and gothic hauntings which drifts the listener on a voyage of bliss. Nirvana is tricky to pinpoint in my household, but with my ears suctioned to my headphones I jumped out of my skin upon a tap on the shoulder, daughter offering me some sweets! Momentarily snapped back in the room as if I’d surfaced from a hypnotist’s invocation, but aching to fall backwards into it once again.

Agreeably, this is not headbanging driving music, neither does it build like Leftfield for those anticipating beats to start rolling after a ten-minute intro, it simply drifts as a soundscape, perhaps coming to its apex at the eloquently medieval church organed Church of Flesh, one of two named tunes out of the six on offer, the others given part numbers. Then, with running water, the final part echoes a distant chant of female vocals as if a wind blowing across a sea for another eleven minutes, it’s stirring, incredibly emotive and perfected.

Along a similar, blissful ethos Richard Wileman served up Arcana in September this year, a third album this time under his own name. While maintaining a certain ambiance, it’s more conventional than his Karda Estra, more attributed to the standard model of popular music. It’s an eerie and spectral resonance, though, with occasional vocals which meander on divine folk and prog-rock; contemporary hippy vibes, rather than timeworn psychedelia. Released on Kavus Torabi’s Believers Roast label, a sprinkling of Byrds and Mamas & Papas ring through with an unmistakable likeness to a homemade Mike Oldfield. When vocals come into effect, with one guest singer Sienna Wileman, it’s astutely drafted and beguiling.

Select anything from the bulging discographies of Karda Estra or Richard Wileman and you’re onto a mood-setting journey, composed with expertise and passion. If ambient house is lost in a bygone era, this is reforming the balance of atmospheric compositions with modernism, so mesmeric it remains without the need for intoxication. Now, where did I stash my old chillum?! Probably in a dusty box in the loft with my Pete Loveday comics and some Mandelbrot fractal postcards….



A Cracked Machine at the Gates of Keras

Don my headphones, chillax with a cider, and prepare my eardrums for a new album from our local purveyors of space-rock goodness; Cracked Machine is a wild ride….

There are few occasions when mellowed music truly suspends me in the moment, when it just exists in the air like oxygen and totally incarcerates and engulfs my psyche. Jah Shaka and ambient house rascals the Orb both achieved this a couple of dusks at Glastonbury, but the same with likewise happenings, I confess I was intoxicated on matter maturity caused me to long leave in my past!

The issue for any reborn psychedelic-head is pondering the notion, will it ever be the same again, will music and art tease my perception to quite the same degree. The sorry answer is no, unless your intransigent mate slips something in your drink. Yet it’s not all despair, with a sound as rich and absorbing as Cracked Machine, it’s doable without drugtaking shenanigans.

They proved this at the most fantastic day in Devizes last year, which was that bit more fantastic, when what was intended to be a bolt-on feature became the highlight of DOCA’s Street Festival. Funded and arranged by Pete and Jacki of Vinyl Realm, the second stage highlighted everything positive about local music; a historic occasion we’ll be harking on for some time yet. I nipped away briefly after Daydream Runaways stole the early part of the day. But where the lively indie-pop newcomers had roused the audience, I returned to witness a hypnotised crowd and a mesmerising ambience distilling the blistering summer air. Smalltalk was numbed, as if the area was suspended in time. A doubletake to confirm we were still perpendicular, sitting in deckchairs or slouching against a wall on the corner of Long Street and St Johns and not slipped through a time vortex to a Hawkwind set at a 1970 free-party love-in. I was beyond mesmerised, but not surprised.

For this is how it was with their impressive 2017 debut album, I, Cosmonaut, the soundscapes just drifted through me, as I causally drafted the review, reminding me of a smoky haze of yore, giggling in a mate’s bedroom, listening to Hawkwind’s Masters of Universe. Youth of my era though, were subjected to electronic transformation in music, which would soon engulf us. Rave culture cut our space-rock honeymoon short, though, Spaceman 3 were a precursor to the ambient house movement of the Orb, Aphex Twin and KLF, others changed their style, like Frome’s Ozric Tentacles merging into Eat Static, and a perpetually changing line-up for Hawkwind appeased the older rock diehards.

I love I, Cosmonaut, it manages to subtly borrow from electronica and trance, only enough to make it contemporary, but keep it from being classed as anything else other than space-rock. I felt their second album, The Call of the Void avoided this slice of Tangerine Dream, and submerged itself totally in the hard rock edge; bloody headbangers! Therefore, it’s a refreshing notion to note newly released Gates of Keras bonds the two albums and sits between them perfectly.

Again, there’s little to scrutinise as it rarely changes, it meanders, trundles me to a world beyond wordplay, as these completely instrumental tracks roll into one another, gorgeously. A Deep Purple styled heavy bass guitar may kick it off, yet the opening track Cold Iron Light takes me to the flipside of Floyd’s Meddle, with seven and half minutes of crashing drums and rolling guitar riffs. Temple of Zaum continues on theme, Ozrics-inspired funkier bassline, and we’re off on the drifting journey, splicing subtle influences. The Woods Demon, for example, stands out for particularly smooth almost Latino guitar riff, making it my personal fave. Yet Move 37 is heavier, upbeat, like the second album. Low Winter Sun is sublime blues-inspired, imagine Led Zeppelin created Satisfaction rather than the Stones, if you will.

Recorded back in November, this is eight lengthy soundscapes of pure bliss, and will guarantee you a safe trip. A signature album for a lonely lockdown of dark, yet emersed in a time of Tolkien-esque vibes and mandelbrot set fractal posters. If this was released in the mid-seventies-to early-eighties every spotty teenager would be inking their army surplus school bag with a biro-version of Cracked Machine’s logo. As it is, age taking its toll and all, I have no idea if this still happens, but doubt it. None of that matters, here is a matured era of the genre, only with a glimpse of how it once was. Nicely done.