There isn't enough mystery in music anymore. Don’t get me wrong, I love that the internet has opened up a plethora of new channels for fans to follow, contact and stalk artists but the magic of new music has become obscured in the flurry of media attention 24/7.
So imagine my surprise, as a huge Ben Howard and Mickey Smith fan, when I liked A Blaze of Feather on Instagram a month or so ago (thinking it was some fancy Cornish/Irish art account) only to discover that it is the latest music offering from the elusive folk artists.
It’s safe to say I lost my shit.
Ben Howard’s music is ingrained into my soul, especially 2014’s I Forget Where We Were album. There is a rawness to the album that touches deep into the human psyche and taps into a part of us that society isn’t always too pleased to witness. For me it’s a celebration of the dark, murky depths of experiences and emotions; conjuring connotations of the dark, murky depths of blue, grey and green of cold water coastlines.
It is an album I am happy to place in the top five I’ve experienced in my life so far. It is a beautiful soundscape engineered and produced with heavy layers and complex effects. It is not an easy listen in places but it is one of the best examples of music as an art form in modern times.
And by the time it entered my life, Ben Howard was nowhere to be seen.
His website was stagnant. Twitter was abandoned. All fronts musically were silent. The mystery of “Where the fuck did Ben Howard go?” only intensified my enjoyment of his music. The scarcity of material, the finite nature of having listened to everything available made each song more precious. I almost hoped he didn’t come back out of the ether because how can you improve on I Forget Where We Were?
You create something new.
A Blaze of Feather is the latest manifestation of music from Mickey Smith, Ben Howard, Nat Wason, India Bourne, Kyle Keegan and Richie Thomas. The band appeared on festival line ups before having any online presence. Their followings are still minute and feel deliciously exclusive. The mystery of EP1's arrival weaves a personality and story most releases now lack. It slipped under radars and surprised fans and critics like an unexpected crisp north wind. Sighs of relief and a warm welcome greeted the release, especially across the UK surf scene. Many feared that the intensely loved creative outputs from Smith and Howard were over. There is a lot to live up to.
As soon as I had the EP in my grasp I headed for the shore and listened with a sunset view and flask of tea. Here’s what I heard.
EP1 opens likes dawn. Dark, earthy tones are intermittently spotted with rays of synth and Bourne’s bassy, distorted cello. Tinkling drops of sound layer up and cloud the track until, cutting like a sun above the horizon, the vocals arrive.
The vocals on EP1 are an amalgamation of voices creating a feeling that this is not one person’s vision or work. At times, you can glimpse individual tones or expressions but the majority of the EP has a chorus of voices rather than a clear lead vocalist. This works to give the album a further sense of anonymity and distances the tracks from any comparison to individual artist’s previous work.
The opening ‘Winter’ has been described as “One of the most beautiful and emotive tracks that I've heard in a very, very long time” by BBC Radio 6 but it is the first single ‘Carousel’ where the EP starts moving.
It’s easy to see where the track title comes from. A dreamy music box landscape of sounds, reverb and husky vocals breaks into a folky, friendly listen despite the darker lyrical content. The pop-like chorus is catchy and fairly formulaic, until the synth slides in under the layered vocals. Sounding like a surreal mix of Pink Floyd and Jeff Wayne, the use of the electronic synth sounds contrast the folky, traditional aspects of the piece perfectly. It is simultaneously ominous and hopeful: an obvious first single choice.
The next track rolls in like a surging tide, full of floating elements but driven by an underlying current of melody and bass. Sounding like the perfect surf film soundtrack, ‘Shelter’ in particular feels like a homage to the surf culture that inspires Smith and Howard so heavily.
‘Death’ is as dark and turbulent as the title suggests. It creeps and drops like a shudder and the discordant collision of cello, bass and grumbling vocals is the musical equivalent of shivers down your spine. It is a beautiful piece that captures the uncomfortable certainty of the “cold hand on my shoulder”. It also captures the wild feel of traditional folk music, bringing to mind images of dark nights, a chorus of weathered characters and an uncertainty that the dawn will return.
With the final track ‘Freagh’, it does.
Continuing to harness the folky inspiration of recording in West Ireland, Freagh is a narrative driven folk song that resembles a hero’s return after the previous track’s turbulence. It is a song that evokes feelings of heritage, dedication and love in all forms. Complex guitar flourishes and acoustic percussion interplay and continue the traditional folk tropes that close the EP.
EP1 is A Blaze of Feather returning to the roots of their love of music, far removed from any commercial success of the past. The EP addresses the challenge of living up to expectations by disengaging from them and creating something fresh and original with traditional influences. The mysterious arrival strengthens the identity of the project, but it remains to be seen how large festival slots and live performances will affect the wholesome, remote, grass-root feel of the material. Balancing authentic passions with commercial success is a difficult challenge for any artist to face but judging by this gorgeous EP, it’s a challenge this band are more than able to handle.
Keep up to date with A Blaze of Feather here.
Nomadic writer and designer