Burning Shed Free EP

burning shed

Back in March 2017, in my Album of the Month post on Moroccan Roll by Brand X, I opined that the latest incarnation of the band had fully rekindled the energy and enthusiasm of their early albums. As evidence I cited a live version of Malaga Virgen recorded on their reunion tour just a few months previously. Then, towards the end of the year, Brand X released a full album of live material from that tour. It’s called But Wait … There’s More and it was ordered for the Crotchety collection over the Christmas/New Year period.

In the UK the new album is only available from Burning Shed, a company that describes itself as “an online label and store specialising in Singer-Songwriter, Progressive, Ambient/Electronica and Art Rock music”. I had ordered CDs from Burning Shed before but this time their website said that customers who hadn’t bought items since May 2017 would need to re-register. Having re-entered the Crotchety Man details the website kindly offered me a free download EP. Never one to pass up a promising opportunity, as soon as the Brand X album was ordered I hit the free download button.

In no time at all over an hour’s worth of music flowed onto the hard drive. Here’s the track list:

  1. Passing Clouds by Colin Edwin
  2. Surprised by Jane Getter Premonition
  3. The Perfect Wife by Nosound
  4. Bloodchild by Old Fire
  5. Friends Make the Worst Enemies (Public Services Broadcasting remix) by Paul Draper
  6. Heavy Hearts [2016 version] by Rhys Marsh
  7. Aftaglid (Tambura Backing Track Mix) by Steve Hillage
  8. The Confined Escape by The Pineapple Thief
  9. The Warm-Up Man Forever by Tim Bowness
  10. Il Sogno di Devi by Alessandro Monti
  11. Slow (Final mix 1_1.1) by UXB

Most of those artists were unknown to me but the ones I did know were all ones I like. As soon as I had some time to spare the digital bits of the extended EP were sent coursing through the wires from computer disc to headphones. Here’s what I found …

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Colin Edwin is best known as Porcupine Tree‘s bass player but he has also worked in collaboration with several other musicians and has released a couple of solo albums. Prompted by the free download the Crotchety elves were tasked with finding out more. They came back with a basketful of data that I won’t try to summarise here. Suffice it to say that Colin has had his fingers in a variety of pies centred on progressive rock but ranging from ambient to metal.

Passing Clouds, the track featured on the Burning Shed Free EP, sits comfortably within that space, slightly off-centre towards ambient, dominated by a bass riff and electronic effects. It’s more pleasant than exciting, but Crotchety Man isn’t grumbling – it was free after all. That particular tune doesn’t seem to be on YouTube or Spotify but Exit Strategy from Colin’s Third Vessel album will give you a pretty good idea of where he’s coming from.

According to Guitar Player Magazine Jane Getter is “The fieriest fretboarding female ever to strap on a Stratocaster”. In her Spotify biography she is described as a jazz guitarist but Surprised is more of a heavy prog rock/pop tune to the Crotchety ear. The elves report, though, that Ms. Getter’s early releases were definitely jazz albeit with strong leanings towards fusion. The evidence so far suggests the Jane Getter Premonition is just the prog side of Jane’s wider musical persona. And surprisingly enjoyable it is, too.

Things get a lot quieter when Nosound take over although, mercifully, this Italian alternative and post rock band does not take their name literally and leave us in complete silence. The Perfect Wife is taken from their latest album, Scintilla, which is aptly described as a collection of “sonically intimate” songs on the band’s website. It makes a refreshing contrast to the bold brash prog of the previous track.

Twenty minutes into the EP already, next we find the slow, sparse vocals and piano of Bloodchild. This is taken from Songs from the Haunted South by an outfit called Old Fire, an ad hoc collaboration of musicians brought together by U.S. instrumentalist and producer John Mark Lapham. The whole album has an air of melancholy, wistful nostalgia and in Bloodchild the emphasis is firmly on the melancholy. “At least he’s no longer in pain”, moans a sad female voice. Crotchety Man sighs and moves quickly on to the next track, feeling both disappointed and unfulfilled.

Friends Make the Worst Enemies takes us from Old Fire‘s unmitigated sadness to a slightly bitter paranoia. “Never trust your friends …”, warns Paul Draper, “‘Coz your friends can hurt you most”. But the backing track steps lightly and the vocals sail on a fair wind in this alt rock single. Both the original and the remix bring a much needed breath of cool fresh air to the EP. (Links to original and remix are given in the track listing above.)

Sadly, the elvish research team have been unable to find any mention of Heavy Hearts by Rhys Marsh anywhere other than the Burning Shed Free EP. A little background digging, though, suggests that Rhys, as a solo artist at least, is not likely to find a warm place in Crotchety Man’s old and flabby heart.

On his website Rhys is described as a singer, songwriter, multi-instrumentalist and producer. And that’s about it. There’s very little that might inspire a casual web surfer to investigate his work. The diligent elves, though, did turn up loose connections to King Crimson, Jaga Jazzist and Anekdoten, which is a lot more promising than the wishy-washy song on the free EP. And there’s an interesting album by Rhys Marsh and The Autumn Ghost called Blue Hour. If you’re curious, drop the heavy hearts and start with that.

Next up we have a classic Steve Hillage track from 1975. Steve is best known as the guitarist with the Canterbury scene band, Gong; he has also made a name for himself as a solo artist and as half of the duo System 7Aftaglid is a psychedelic instrumental from his first solo album, Fish Rising. The version on the Burning Shed EP is a remix featuring the tambura, an Indian instrument resembling a fretless lute, which is reputed to add a slightly more mystical feel to the composition. Frankly, though, the effect is too subtle for the Crotchety ears.

The version on the original album is some 14 minutes 44 seconds long, the tambura remix is shorter at 12:42 and the Steve Hillage website has this 3:36 extract, which provides a representative taster of the prog and psychedelic rock Steve was playing in the mid seventies.

After ‘Glid comes a track by one of my favourite bands, The Pineapple Thief. They have appeared in these pages twice before when I reviewed the album Magnolia and offered Fend for Yourself from Your Wilderness as a Track of the Week. The deluxe edition of Your Wilderness comes with a bonus disc containing seven further compositions welded together into one 40 minute track. The bonus disc has its own title, 8 Years Later, and it’s another absolute treat.

The Burning Shed EP contains track 6 from 8 Years Later, the instrumental The Confined Escape. It sounds a lot like some of Pink Floyd’s more meandering, ambient works and it’s the highlight of the EP so far. Unfortunately, that track doesn’t seem to be on my chosen streaming service but the full 8 Years Later album is on YouTube and it’s well worth listening to. (The Confined Escape starts around 22 minutes in.)

It’s no surprise to find a Tim Bowness song on the free EP. He founded the Burning Shed operation along with Peter Chilvers and Pete Morgan in 2001 and still has a central role in running the company. In addition to his solo work Tim is a member of the bands No-man (with Steven Wilson), Henry Fool, Memories of Machines and Slow Electric. He has also collaborated with Colin Edwin, Bruce Soord (of The Pineapple Tree), Judy Dyble (ex Fairport Convention) and many others.

The Warm-Up Man Forever has the characteristic wispy, almost whispering vocals of Tim Bowness over a pulsing drum beat and synthesiser wash. The words sing a sympathetic lament for an artist who will always be second best, but those restless drums speak of an irritable angst that the warm-up man will never quite shake off. Tim may be (metaphorically) blowing his own trumpet here but this song stands up really well in the context of the whole EP.

According to Google Translate, “il sogno di Devi” means “the dream of Devi”. It’s a track from the Unfolk album by Alessandro Monti. The Crotchety research department has discovered only that Alessandro is an artist and self-taught musician from Venice. He seems to use the ‘unfolk’ tag for his music project(s), directly contradicting Wikipedia’s classification.

So, is this folk music or not? The elves are equivocal. Il Sogno di Devi starts fairly quietly with a folkish mix of mandolin and violin but half way through strident electric guitar notes cut in, transforming it into a kind of prog/rock/folk instrumental. It pleases Crotchety man immensely. And the Unfolk album has plenty more of his highly original folk-based material, too. Alessandro Monti is the most exciting discovery to come from the Burning Shed EP.

The final track on the EP is a dance/trance piece by UXB, an outfit led by the other proprietor of Burning Shed, Pete Morgan. It’s not the sort of thing that usually appeals to Crotchety Man’s inner critic but Slow rolls and rumbles along most agreeably. Once again, the elves have failed to come up with any further information beyond the fact that Morgan plays bass and keyboards. The Burning Shed website does, however, have a free download of an excerpt from a remix of one of UXB‘s tracks if anyone wants to explore it.

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So, what have we got in return for registering with the Burning Shed website? Eleven tracks, only two duds (those by Old Fire and Rhys Marsh) and still over an hour’s worth of music worthy of joining the ever growing Crotchety collection. Plus, an introduction to several interesting artists. A bargain says old Crotchety Man.

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Archipelago

Archipelago - rocks

In my last post I gave you a glimpse of ten islands strung out like opalescent pearls across a monochrome ocean, the Archipelago album by Hidden Orchestra. It was a deliberately tantalising glimpse and, before we go off to explore the rocks in that necklace, I’d like to take a moment to examine what made a simple listing of track titles and personnel so intriguing.

First, there’s a certain mystery in the titles themselves – just one or two words suggestive of a mood or taken from a strange language. ‘Vainamoinen’ sounds as if it might be Scandinavian; ‘Vorka’ could be Orcish, Klingon or Vogon. But we also have the quite conventional ‘Hushed’ and the downright prosaic ‘Overture’. There is oddness here, but not everything is weird in this new land.

The name of the band presents another puzzle. Why is the orchestra hidden? What hides it from our view? Perhaps it doesn’t really exist. After all, there are only four musicians listed; that’s surely not enough for an orchestra. And yet those four individuals play a bewildering array of instruments – everything from the traditional (violin, piano) through the unlikely (ukulele, zither) to the barminess of the didgeridoo and the obscurity of the kantele (described in the album notes as a zither-harp). Nor must we forget the ‘field recordings’ credited to Joe Acheson. Does that mean we will be treated to bird song or the wind in the willows? Or are we, perhaps, going to hear the grass grow?

If we let our eyes drift over to the list of guest artists on the starboard side we find the album contains “performances and improvisations” by a further ten musicians. This suggests we may be sailing far too close to the treacherous waters of the avant-garde classical composers like John Cage or at least encroaching on some of the freer outposts of jazz. The first entry in that column does nothing to alleviate our nervousness. It says, simply, “Su-a Lee, cello and saw”. We can but hope that that refers to the sound of a large handsaw singing under the caress of the cellist’s bow rather than the grating rasp of sharp metal teeth on the naked wooden body of her fragile instrument. It’s an unsettling item.

Fortunately, next on the guest list is the Scottish harpist and folk singer Mary MacMaster who was already known to Crotchety Man. That she is listed as playing the clarsach and electro-harp is no great surprise as they are simply regional and modern forms of the traditional harp. Then come several ordinary-sounding instrumentalists bringing brass and woodwind into the mix: trumpet, saxophones, clarinet and French horn. One player has a kaval to his name, which turns out to be a type of flute common in Turkey and the Balkans, but flutes are not uncommon in an orchestra. It seems we haven’t ventured too far from familiar waters.

Finally, at the bottom of the “also featuring” list we find George Gillespie who “tap dances on Reminder”. That short note opens our eyes like a slap across the face with a wet fish and sends a shiver of electric fear slithering down our spines. We are all at sea and there seems to be a madman in our midst. Heaven only knows what kind of music this crew creates.

archipelago-collage

It is the questions that the sleeve notes raise that tickle and tease. But, like a dissonant chord, a teaser is only good when it is resolved. Here, then, are some answers to those perplexing questions.

The hiddenorchestra.com website provides the following definition:

Hidden Orchestra is an imagined orchestra created by composer/producer Joe Acheson.

The releases feature a wide variety of guest musicians from different musical backgrounds, recorded separately, and combined by Joe in his studio to create an ‘imaginary orchestra’ that doesn’t really exist.

Dark orchestral textures, with field recordings, bass, and layers of drums and percussion.

And that sums up the project nicely. But it still doesn’t tell us much about the waters we are in. If we were to climb into the crow’s nest and look around would we see the smooth white beaches of classical symphonies, the foaming surf of modern jazz or thunderous waves breaking on heavy rocks? Does our tillerman have a steady hand or does our captain have a wild and beefy heart?

The answer to all those questions is “No”. Archipelago is an album of 5-minute portions of orchestral sound liberally seasoned with fresh sea-salt beats. Sometimes it carries soft flecks of jazzy foam or the cry of seagulls but we are miles from Davis and the Charlie bird flies over a different sea. Our ship rolls a little on the waves and heaves with the swell but there are no sharp rocky outcrops to imperil the passengers or crew. Our course changes frequently but never abruptly as the helmsman guides us deftly round beautiful headlands of melody and into quiet bays of harmony.

I would classify Archipelago as 21st century classical music but Joe Acheson’s compositions make no concessions to common popular music styles whatsoever. In an attempt to define their genre Wikipedia calls it IDM, world music, Electronica, Reggae, Dub, Post-Rock, hip-hop, DnB and jazz. Crotchety Man would remove the reggae, dub and hip-hop from that list, downplay the DnB and add classical at the front. I’m even tempted to coin a new term for it: orchestral beats.

The Hidden Orchestra has all the variety of texture and timbre of a traditional large orchestra – it has strings, woodwind, brass and percussion – but the composer uses them sparingly. There are no massed strings, no ranks of woodwind, no tiers of brass. Each individual instrument has a unique and separate voice. There are also a few sprinklings of electronic effects and natural sounds. There’s no need for extensive use of synthesisers if you can call on someone who plays the saw.

Archipelago - flight

I can’t recommend Archipelago highly enough. It is utterly exquisite and I make no apology for the teaser trick. If I should die tomorrow I would like something from Archipelago to be played at my funeral. Flight would be appropriate, I think. Celestial harp and plaintive cello combine with the round hollow sound of a clarinet and the profound notes of a double bass to create a sense of calm contemplation while a light tune both remembers the sunny days  of the past and looks forward to a still brighter hereafter.

And, if that doesn’t float your boat, try this mesmerising live version of Seven Hunters.