Tag Archives: cloudy harmonies

Philip Sheppard: ‘The Glass Cathedral’ mini-album (“a whole chamber of cellos swimming off in a new direction”)

12 Jul
Philip Sheppard: 'The Glass Cathedral'

Philip Sheppard: ‘The Glass Cathedral’

Reluctantly, as the music finally dissipates into quiet, I surface for facts – and here they are.

Philip Sheppard is cellist with the Composers’ Ensemble and with The Smith Quartet (a London answer to New Music ensembles like Kronos Quartet). He’s taken on the knotty work of Michael Tippett and Oliver Knussen: his list of close collaborators outside the classical world have included Abdullah Ibrahim and Jeff Buckley. Freed from the demands of repertoire and support roles, his own music for solo cello leads into meditative, overlapping multi-tracked soundscapes.

That’s the definition, the bare bones of it. A modern-classical musician, as composer-performer, looping or patterning processed sounds in the path followed by Terry Riley, Steve Reich and Gavin Bryars, and by Robert Fripp and Brian Eno.

This doesn’t convey how far beyond the plain facts of the process Philip Sheppard gets – how he’s boiled down the structure of classical expression to small and beautiful hints in a sustained electrophonic atmosphere. The captivating, wonderfully played music on ‘The Glass Cathedral’ is close, in its way, to the devotional reachings of Fripp’s ‘A Blessing Of Tears’: but it’s more abstract, a music of suggestions and amnesia. Philip manages to suggest vistas of embracing vastness with simple and delicately executed elements gradually mixed into an ever-expanding palette of cello textures, running from a discordant plumbing-scrape to an overwhelming snatch of piercing, striving melody. There are only two pieces on here, both vastly different, both extraordinary.

Harrison’s Chronometer uses Philip’s electric cello – a custom-built five-string cyborg which readily sinks itself into an evanescent minor-chord drone, gradually resolving and passing through moods; a Mahler trance in multi-track. The name’s taken from the 18th century timepiece designed to revolutionise navigation and safety at sea; providing a fixed, reliable timekeeping process, aiding judgement of distance, mapping and location. Inspired by this, the music sounds like a steady, resolute voyage through half- known climes, as Philip fills the air with the sounds of beasts and uncertainties. String snarls slide and slink away, high harmonics keen and shiver. Low, rumbling deep sea monsters scrape away in the bass registers.

Living but impersonal detail builds up, as gorgeously and inhumanly hostile as a crystal jungle; and into this comes tentative tracings of order. There’s a high pulse; a sawing Greek riff of chorused cellos; snap-and-lock ostinatos in the bass recalling the clipped Mediterranean funk of Mick Karn. A melody materialises in the alto range, cleanly distorted – to the point where it finds a rough perfection – but it tails out. Nothing is resolved; eventually the music fades away into the dark, although its recognisable touches are still isolated within the surrounding chaos. Expressive to the last, they sit like lonely markers; or like humans in a small, fragile boat on brutally indifferent seas that have hardly even begun to yield their perilous secrets.

Compared to Harrison’s Chronometer, the title track of The Glass Cathedral is sublimely peaceful: though in its own way it’s just as deliquescent, just as much part of that territory where post- classical meets post-rock and where both begin to blend with the subtle dissolutional anarchy that is drift. It’s played on a vintage cello with a history implied rather than certain: a mid- 8th century instrument possessed of a rich verdant tone and traced back to an anonymous London craftsman. Whether its ambiguous story is true or false, I’d like to think it informs the piece, which has hints of more intimate John Taverner compositions but links back to the past via a quote from Monteverdi’s ‘Orfeo’ which coalesces and dissolves throughout the composition.

Here, the music seems to wake itself in sensual, melodic stretches of cello, in exquisite glass-harmonica deviations of sound. It is like drowsing inside a translucent sacred building, allowing a whole day to become a time-exposure. Overdubbed drones and harmonies acting like light beams, branching off at odd angles, allowing the corners of the church to be lit gently and briefly before the source slides off somewhere else. A solo cello establishes itself in centre with a contemplative, yearning changing theme. It gives dominance over to the light angles and the Monteverdi fragment… then, as if shot through a prism, a whole chamber of cellos are swimming off in a new direction, embarking on a related theme, only to dissolve out gently in loosely woven trios.

I’d say more, but I’m already spewing too many abstractions. It’s enough to say that if it’s true that architecture is frozen music, then this is (just as equally) a beautiful, dissolving architecture.

Philip Sheppard: ‘The Glass Cathedral’
Blue Snow, BSNCD1 (no barcode)
CD/download mini-album
Released: 5th July 1999

Get it from:
CD version best obtained second-hand: download available via Bandcamp.

Philip Sheppard online:
Homepage Homepage Twitter Bandcamp

The Milk & Honey Band: ‘Round the Sun’ album, 1994 (“pollen-soaked brightness”)

8 Oct
The Milk & Honey Band: 'Round The Sun'

The Milk & Honey Band: ‘Round The Sun’

Life in Levitation appears to have been pretty intense. It wasn’t just the careening violence of that band’s supercharged stew of indie-metal and psychedelia (which usually brought to mind eerie and sickly dawn comedowns, or bloated nebulae savaging each other in a chilly night-sky) but the personal cost as well. Five equally creative underground rock musicians – each with hungry histories behind them – yoked together into a single band and choosing an open-ended approach, then unexpectedly exploding into semi-celebrity across the British indie-rock circuit.

Excesses of talent and volatility (and too much “too much” in general) inspired Levitation, but also wore it down. In particular, the sudden and very public departure of the band’s doggedly wayward frontman Terry Bickers in summer ’93 seemed acrimonious enough to raise blisters. Perhaps this is why whenever Levitation’s keyboard player Bob White stepped away from the band for a breather of his own, the music that he produced had such pollen-soaked brightness to it. Compared to Levitation’s soaring, guttering galactic frenzies, The Milk & Honey Band feels more like waking up in a warm barn in the woozy heat of an August afternoon, knowing that there’s just enough of the summer left for you to relax into.

Collected together as a full album, these songs float together gracefully and lazily. Despite the communal, homespun suggestions of the name, Bob is on his own here – producing and playing absolutely everything from the shakers to the luscious layered guitars. He seems more than happy to be carrying all the weight. Of course, he’s made it easier for himself by making Milk & Honey Band music so softly buoyant: an easygoing psychedelia with a nostalgic undertow. ‘Round The Sun’ is pervaded by a sunny West Coast feel, with banks of multi-tracked Bobs murmuring in cloudy harmonies.

There’s an illuminated sting to Not Heaven’s punchy rhythm, but listen to that glorious coda as the guitars slide deliciously over each other – a sensual Moebius strip of sound. A trio of pastoral guitars in Raining, set against a gentle downpour, recall Peter Green. Mandolins ring tenderly on Out Of Nowhere. The slow, sleepy, rumple of the title track builds on rich and majestic layers of spliffed-up guitars and harmonium; Bob lovingly croons “feels like life has put the world in your arms” amidst touches of melodica and tingling vibraphone. Even a digression into pelting distorted rock-out for Another Perfect Day (which sounds like an agreeably tranquillized Bob Mould) is haloed with positivity.

West Coast syrup and sunshine aside, the Milk & Honey Band is also as English as chips in newspaper. Often it could be a never-was memory of imaginary childhood holidays. Something remembered by a happier Syd Barrett, perhaps – saved from drowning, and lost in a contented swirl of dope smoke as he hangs out with an equally relaxed Andy Partridge.

Two rogue Milk & Honey Band instrumentals also anchor themselves to an endearing shabby gentility, like fading Edwardian seaside pavilions going quietly to seed in the dying sunlight. The first of these, Tea (sweetened with organ, glockenspiel and fake clarinet), summons up sepia memories of elderly swinging dance-bands. The snatch of elegant minimalism on Pier View (shifting interlocking waltzes of piano and synth oboe) isn’t a million miles away from the  more mannered moments of  Penguin Café Orchestra’s chamber-music joys.

Still… beyond the simple humming pleasures, there’s a subtle tinge of melancholy. It’s intangible, like a barely-there sense of the mistakes you’ve not yet realised that you’ve made. On Puerto, hazy recollections from family holidays – train journeys, shapes made by a father’s hands – are just flakes of memory, snapshots of times that are gone. Only the cavernous darkness of Light – slow drums booming, guitars like giant creaking girders; a smudgy, apprehensive fog of vocals – points back towards Levitation’s broiling stress.

Yet there are hints that the warmth in which The Milk & Honey Band sits is a resting place which must be eventually left behind; or a long-ago photograph in which the colours will eventually turn wan and wear away. Listening past the folky, bluesy cats-cradle of clean-picked guitars (recalling the Stones in wasted lament on Wild Horses) you’ll hear Bob singing softly about blood on his hands that won’t wash away. Elsewhere, he gently pleads “Take a lot of stupid noise / and try to understand the words that I say.”

It’s as if he’s aware that the time available for understanding is short: circumscribed by circumstance, and with far too much human frailty getting in its way. Presumably, fraught energies will be beckoning again sometime soon. In the meantime this album is here, as floaty and comforting as a hammock-ride – and as vulnerable.

The Milk & Honey Band: ‘Round the Sun’
Rough Trade Records, R3572 (5022781203574)
CD/vinyl/download album
Released: 29th September 1994

Buy it from:
Download from Burning Shed; CD is long-deleted and best looked for second-hand.

The Milk & Honey Band online:
Homepage Facebook MySpace

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