Originally hailing from Saint Petersburg, iamthemorning is the partnership of self-taught, progressive-rock-inspired singer Marjana Semkina and meticulously-taught classical pianist Gleb Kolyadin; it’s also what happens when their conflicting backgrounds and sympathetic musicalities merge. Using pick-up ensembles of classical and rock musicians, they stage their music in multi-media chamber shows; swelling out to small orchestral arrangements, efflorescent electric guitar and tape inserts. Whenever this isn’t possible, they’ll strip themselves back to a string-augmented quartet. When that‘s not possible either, they’ll revert to the original duo, trusting in Gleb’s virtuosic St. Petersburg Conservatory piano skills to cover (or at least intimate) the orchestral role behind the lustrous drama of Marjana’s voice.
Marjana and Gleb’s burnished, budded musicality shows a clear affinity with the British literary mythoscape. Their burgeoning pre-autumnal songs certainly possess, amongst other things, tints of English and Breton-Celtic folk and a certain pre-Raphaelite glow; recalling, on a surface level, that billowing school of female-fronted prog-folk which includes Renaissance or Mostly Autumn (or, on the arresting death-lays which bookend this year’s ‘Lighthouse’ album, the glimmering Celtic feytronica of Caroline Lavelle). All of this probably had a lot to do with ‘Lighthouse’ scooping up ‘Prog’ magazine’s Album of the Year award for 2016.
Chamber-prog is the term the band themselves choose, and the one that’s usually applied to them. Tagging them with the prog label, however (complete with all of the blowsy, blustering AOR associations which got gummed to it during the 1980s), seems a little reductive. iamthemorning‘s meticulous immersion in advanced harmony and arrangement puts them square into the tradition of florid electro-acoustic neoromantics – the densely skilled ones who own a strong affinity to the tail-end of Romantic music but arrive several generations too late; the ones who often fall into prog by default, through a love of rock amplification and of what happens when song meets electric surge). Consider the dogged grand orchestralism thundered out by Robert John Godfrey in The Enid. Consider Kerry Minnear, slipping his haunting yet sophisticated quiet-man ballads through the busy humour of Gentle Giant (referencing romanticism and modernism as he did so: deeper rills through the romping). Consider the late Keith Emerson and how (behind ELP’s circus vulgarities and rollicks through baroque, Bach and barrelhouse) he too maintained a fascination for the rich harmonic and melodic upheaval where romanticism meets modernism; capturing it in his brash adaptations of Ginastera and Rodrigo, and listening towards the eastern European strains of Mussorgsky, Janáček and Bartók.
This last, in turn, brings us to Gleb and his own deep immersion in the likes of Stravinsky (there are videos of him playing ‘The Rite Of Spring’ and clearly adoring it); one of the reasons why, however much an iamthemorning song may slip along like a scented bath, there’s always more shading and detail in its depths. The other reason is Marjana’s growing determination to back the petal-sheened sonic prettiness and concert-hall glamour with more profound psychological resonance, turning the ‘Lighthouse’ concept into a diary of mental illness and the struggles to survive it. The band might still be in the early stages of establishing a lyrical and conceptual maturity to match the breadth of their musicality, but there’s plenty of space and opportunity to do this. The currents of invention under the lush surface slickness, and the clear willingness of Gleb and Marjana to challenge each other and to grow together, make iamthemorning a band to watch.
Tim Bowness, on the other hand, has been through much of this already, having persistently edged and developed his visions from the turbulent romantic moodism of his earlier work to his current, exquisitely-honed portraits of human vulnerability. Forced in part by increasingly long gaps in the open musical marriage of his main band no-man, he’s been demonstrating himself, step by step, to not be merely a band singer blessed with a rich, poignant whisper of a voice and a sharp sense of understated lyrical drama, but a formidable solo artist with a mind for matching and fusing together diverse sounds and musical elements.
Erstwhile/ongoing no-man partner Steven Wilson may get more of the plaudits these days, but Tim’s growing list of solo albums are every bit as good. Bridging Mark Hollis with Mark Eitzel, Robert Wyatt with David Sylvian and Peter Gabriel with Morrissey, they work off a confidently-expanding sonic palette of spiky caressing art-rock guitar, luxuriant keyboard and drum work, strings and atmospherics. As ever with Tim, the subject matter is tender and bleak – including thwarted ambitions, the shaping and stripping of love by time and mortality, and (increasingly) shades of the north-western landscapes and dilemmas to which Tim owes his own initial artistic formation.
While he’s currently brewing a welter of projects (including a long-overdue second duo album with Peter Chilvers, the resurrection of his angsty 1980s Mersey art-pop quartet Plenty, and assorted work with Banco de Gaia, contemporary classical composer Andrew Keeling and Happy The Man’s Kit Watkins), Tim’s main focus is his still-in-progress fourth solo album, ‘Third Monster On The Left’. This is sounding like his most ambitious project to date: a conceptual musical memoir centring on the backstage thoughts of a fictional, fading classic-rock musician, awash in the garden and graveyard of talent that was the 1970s. For ‘Third Monster On The Left’, Tim promises (as part of the context-appropriate crafting) a more explicit version of the progginess that’s always fed into his art pop since the beginning: specifically, “the harmonic richness and romanticism of 1970s Genesis, and the Mellotron-drenched majesty of early King Crimson.”
All of this makes the declared prospect of a Bowness/iamthemorning set of collaborative “shared bill, shared songs” concerts an interesting one. There’s already a connection via Colin Edwin, who’s played bass for both of them. On this occasion, Tim will be bringing along band regulars Michael Bearpark (guitar), Stephen Bennett (keyboards) and Andrew Booker (electronic drums) plus returning cohorts Steve Bingham (violin, loops) and Pete Morgan (bass). Some or all of these will be pulling double duty backing iamthemorning, alongside whoever Gleb and Marjana brings along. What’s most intriguing, though, is what this hand-in-hand teamup is going to bring out in both parties. Beyond the luxuriant tones, there’s useful artistic tinder in their differences, their similarities, and their internal contradictions alike.
At its best, there ought to be push-and-pull. Tim’s austere taste for unvarnished modernism and stark realism is ever compromised by a sensual greed for the textures of romance: Gleb and Marjana swim in an ocean of effusive orchestral indulgence, but now want to grap stone and dirt. He’ll give them an exquisitely pained art-pop ballad, pared clean of fairytale delusions and as slender as a greyhound; they’ll polish and expand it back into dreamscape. They’ll give him a perfumed Edwardian garden: he’ll slouch in, with his Beckett and Kelman paperbacks, to lay a grit path. He’ll bring out their darker, less-resolved deep chords. They’ll bring out his blushes.
The odds are fair that they’ll make a collective attempt at the title track from ‘Lighthouse’ (though they’ll probably not risk a medley with the no-man epic of the same name). I’m also hoping for a Gram-and-Emmylou-shaded prog harmony on Tim’s heart-breaking Know That You Were Loved; or perhaps a morningification of Dancing For You. We’ll see…
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iamthemorning with Tim Bowness:
- IO Pages Festival @ Poppodium DRU Cultuurfabriek, Hutteweg 24a, 7071 MB Ulft, Netherlands, Saturday 12th November 2016, 2.30pm (with Gazpacho + Anekdoten + Lesoir + Marcel Singor + A Liquid Landscape + Anneke van Giersbergen) – information here and here
- Bush Hall, 310 Uxbridge Road, Shepherds Bush, London, W12 7LJ, England, Monday 14th November 2016 – information here and here
Immediately after the Bowness shows, iamthemorning embark on three more shows on their own in the Netherlands – details below. Depending on which one you attend, you could see the band in any one of its three main playing configurations.
- Hedon, Burg Drijbersingel 7, 8021 DA Zwolle, The Netherlands, Wednesday 16th November 2016, 8.00pm (chamber gig with violin & cello) – information
- De Pul, Kapelstraat 13, 5401 EC Uden, The Netherlands, Thursday 17th November 2016, 9.00pm (duo gig) – information
- Patronaat, Zijlsingel 2, 2013 DN Haarlem, The Netherlands, Friday 18th November 2016, 7.30pm (full band gig) – information