Henry Fool: ‘Men Singing’
Perhaps it’s his own fault for perpetually playing the faded-lily crooner, the songwriter victim of ever-blasted hopes, the sigher in lonely cafes. At any rate, Tim Bowness doesn’t get nearly enough credit for his mischievous sense of humour. For instance: in his understated and perfectly burnished way, he’s one of the most stylish and distinctive vocalists in British rock, whether he’s refining and wrangling art-pop with Steven Wilson in no-man or lending his silky melancholy tenor to assorted projects from OSI to centrozoon, Rajna to White Willow. Yet for the whole of this second Henry Fool record – for which the involvement of him and his voice might have been the biggest selling points – he shuts up altogether and plays guitar instead. Inevitably, the album’s called ‘Men Singing’.
Tim also contributes the track titles – enigmatic, silly, sometimes both simultaneously – and, I’m guessing, the sleevenotes. In the latter, his Henry Fool partner-in-chief Stephen Bennett is credited with impressions of Miles Davis and Terry Riley, but also with an impression of Mavis Riley from ‘Coronation Street’. It’s an intriguing glance into their working relationship. Presumably, this means Tim gets to be Rita Tanner. Not inconceivable. Following a phase of relatively sober hairstyles, he is looking more bouffant these days.
Of course, Henry Fool have a history of not quite doing what’s expected of them. While they’re nominally a progressive rock band, you might better describe them as highly-accomplished prog fans on a weekend trip to their influences, who get bored with the direct route and carry out chance diversions to their other interests as they go. Their 2001 debut album certainly drew echoes and ripples from Soft Machine, from mid-’70s Genesis or Pink Floyd, or the more ruminative moments of King Crimson. Yet there were post-punk spikes in the road, stopping the music from becoming grand and flowery; and stubborn, counter-intuitive post-rock kinks (reminiscent of Slint, Fridge or Tortoise) that reigned in or derailed the pastoral draperies.
In addition, rather than grand drama or ill-advised theories-of-everything, Tim’s songwriting (sparse and bloodsqueezed, honed for understatement) offered flashes of human fragility, thumbnail sketches of love and loneliness, and brief twilight peeks into inconclusive lives. It made for an uneasy listen, and maybe the prog world as a while wasn’t ready for a band more Raymond Carver than William Gibson or Siddharta. Henry Fool made a couple of slightly disjointed festival appearances and then went to sleep for a decade under a haystack of perfectionism, studio wrangling and sundry distractions.
Cue, much later, this re-emergence – in which the entire band sounds utterly invigorated. There might be no words this time, (and the music’s smooth flow belies its long gestation) but the intent is clear.
As of the moment, Henry Fool’s a seven-piece collective: part-time players and guest players (many from the no-man orbit) fluttering in and out of place to pulse out fluent streams of music, like happy quasars. Most of the original collaborators are back – multi-instrumental Eno collaborator Peter Chilvers returns on fretless bass, Cambridge jazz veteran Myke Clifford provides reeds and woodwind, and Michael Bearpark continues to commit a variety of guitar solos and interferences from skittering textural glissandi to raw, probing melodies. Of the newer recruits, Andrew Booker (from the no-man live band and, more recently, Sanguine Hum) draws, drives and hauls the drum patterns. The latest player to be pulled into the talent pool is I Monster’s Jarrod Gosling, who brings further prog- and post-rock ingredients along with him as well as sounds from the world of organic electronica – mixing, Mellotrons, a touch of Moog bass and a tinkling glockenspiel.
Most of the out-and-out proggery still comes courtesy of Stephen Bennett, whose keyboard skills and theatrical instincts (thanks to some solid neo-prog history via his 1980s band LaHost) adds most of the harmony and decoration to the project. The Tim Bowness stamp on the project is in the ideas and the overall compass. Never an instrumental virtuoso himself, he leaves the spotlight to others and provides the music’s spine rather than its face – sitting in the background, he rolls out a variety of low-key but crucial guitar lines. These generate the music’s understated art-rock elements of challenge and upset; and it’s still the friendly grapple between Stephen’s wide-eyed fluency and Tim’s beady, quizzical interference that brings the music to life.
The four lengthy, semi-improvised tracks on ‘Men Singing’ manage to be steeped in English prog and psychedelic reference points without becoming waterlogged by any of them. Even the guest appearance of a genuine ’70s art-rock guest star – Phil Manzanera, invited in to channel Quiet Sun on two tracks – fails to upset the balance. Instead, he slots smoothly into the work, engaging in an equal-terms quadrille of unorthodox lead and rhythmic noises with Michael Bearpark. It’s due to the band’s thinking patterns. Rather than going for an unfolding narrative or for linear doodling, Henry Fool works as a kind of coasting, vertical jam; with layer upon layer of subtle music thoughts playing out and exploring over their rolling instrumentals. Throughout, Peter Chilvers restrains himself to spare, crunching, authoritative rumbles and wahs on bass, like a giant turning over in bed – pinning and shaping each long measure with the minimum of showmanship.
The fourteen minutes of Everyone In Sweden are those which most strongly suggest mid-’70s British jazz-rock, carried as they are on upfront and ever-fluid Booker drumming, and woven through by high-buzzing analogue synths. At points it could sound like Soft Machine taking a crack at Los Endos, although a variety of knotty guitar approaches from Manzanera, Bearpark and Bowness and the airy punch of Myke Clifford’s soprano sax spin the music through further territories and changes. At half the length, Man Singing sounds like a lost jam between Miles Davis and the journeying Pink Floyd of ‘Ummagumma’ – elusive funk with bursts of Herbie Mann-ish flute from Myke Clifford, irritated-elephant interjections from Manzanera, and juicy elusive funk-slurs and pings from Chilvers. Bowness, meanwhile, hovers on a tremulous Bark Psychosis guitar; glimpsed occasionally through gaps in the rest of the music, and keeping the questions raised.
The lumbering two-note fuzz bass anchoring and stippling My Favourite Zombie Dream suggests something less gracious. On this one the band plays cruder even as it holds and manipulates tension. Toms bob uneasily, synthesizers string out warped buzzes and trumpeting tonal tumbles. A backdrop of Mellotron gauzes, crash-spring guitar and wrenched organ tones add further disruptive edges. Increasing layers of Stephen Bennett parts pay tribute to a variety of keyboard players from prog to Krautrock – all simultaneously.
Thirteen-and-a-half minutes of Chic Hippo round everything off. This one’s a game of two halves. The first is a leisurely, arena-friendly stroll – the boom-bat drums and the pecking bass, the brace of real violins (courtesy of Steve Bingham) flying alongside the pop-up musings of the Mellotron. There are trumpet lines, moving in jabbing boxer shuffles; and melting electric piano dreams. There are flown-in swerves of parachute-collapse guitar distortion, or bulges like the revving of temperamental guitars. For the second half, a steamy mid-tempo pulse decorated with stern doubled saxophone honks and Wurlitzer piano arpeggios picks everything else up and runs with it. Guitars hang off the sides of the tune, peeling in strips: Bowness offers serene minor arpeggios, Bearpark a scything fuzzed slide line.
Yet while the album is drenched in detail and in finely-worked passing salutes to the creative hum of the early ’70s, that’s not what’s important about it. What matters is the lifting and the liberation; those layers of floated space stacked up above the rhythms and the tickalongs, and the way in which they’re filled. Henry Fool’s biggest achievement is the way in which they’ve freed themselves. It could be a decade of clever editing – something given back from those years of doubt and wrangling – but that doesn’t explain the spirit of fluency here.
While the band have kept some of that beady edge and economy which set them apart on their original arrival, every second of this album is packed with the kind of music that seems to have arrived without agenda or awkwardness. In between the shifts in tone, the mood colourings and the instrumental dialogs, Henry Fool have found a way to travel in a state of easy grace. From the opening cymbal twists to the final harmonious thin-out, every single sound on here (collectively hovering in position like an immaculate air display) feels like the sound of a musician playing through their instruments in the right voice for the right moment… and that’s a rare achievement anywhere. For nearly forty sustained minutes, everyone’s attuned; all in chorus.
Men singing. What do you know? – perhaps it wasn’t a joke after all.
Henry Fool: ‘Men Singing’
KScope Music, KSCOPE244 / 802644824420 or KSCOPE836 / 802644583617
Released: 11th March 2013
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