Piano Magic – Saint Marie EP

Piano Magic
Saint Marie EP

In these album-orientated times, where singles are little more than flimsy promotional tools, EPs (and mini-albums) are fast-becoming an antiquated oddity. That’s more the pity, given the way that such fat-free formats often capture artists’ truest, most spontaneous creative impulses (see the classic likes of Mission of Burma’s Signals, Calls & Marches, Throwing Muses’ Fat Skier, and the Pixies’ Come on Pilgrim for glowering evidence). And if there are any other currently active British bands more able to represent themselves in short-form than Piano Magic, then your scribe would certainly like to hear them. In the meantime though, this seriously sublime six-track EP, released just three or so months after 2003’s luminous long-player – The Troubled Sleep of Piano Magic – will more than do.
In true Piano Magician tradition, this new set strongly connects both with its predecessors as well as taking yet another stylistic leap sideways. Moving away from the semi-fixed six-piece band set-up that drove The Troubled Sleep…, this six-tracker is another of Piano Magic’s well-considered collaborations with guest singers and players. In the former respect, we find frontman Glen Johnson relinquishing his lead vocal duties for a new version of “Saint Marie” (originally the opening track from the aforementioned album). Entering the vocal booth is Alan Sparhawk of Low, who previously worked with both Piano Magic and Transient Waves on a rare seven inch way back when. Whilst the newer “Saint Marie” may miss some of the hushed menace from the Johnson-sung original, Sparhawk sounds in fine foreboding fettle as Durutti Column-indebted guitars swirl around Tarwater-like electronics in truly formidable fashion. Two tracks in, and the band glide into the first of three instrumental passages, as the elegiac “Fantasia on Old English Arts” transports us to a truly eerie plain. Featuring James Topham’s violin at the fore (with guitars, synths, and throbbing bass bubbling beneath), the track recalls both 4AD-favourites Dead Can Dance and long-lost Seattle post-rockers Red Stars Theory (particularly the band’s forgotten 1999 epic Life in a Bubble Can Be Beautiful).
What comes next is even more devastatingly beautiful. Once again employing the ghostly vocal skills of semi-retired 60s/70s folk starlet Vashti Bunyan (who made a crucial contribution to Piano Magic’s 2002 LP, Writers Without Homes), we’re plunged into a dark sensuous centrepiece of flickering acoustics, low murmuring keyboards, and a melody that threatens to sever your heartstrings. Whilst what follows isn’t quite so lump-in-the-throat inducing, the band don’t relent in pushing more emotive buttons than is strictly legal during a 26-minute conception. After a light acoustic interlude – “Lalo” – which makes a respectable nod to Brit-folkers like Nick Drake and Bert Jansch, Sparhawk and Bunyan return for the doom-wracked “Wrong Turn.” With all the dread of Nick Cave’s narcotic Tender Prey, the slow-blues grind of The Crime & City Solution, and the nastiest guitar sound since Mogwai’s “Like Herod” behind him, Sparhawk dredges the darkest depths of Glen Johnson’s muse for a mesmerising gut-spiller. Only Bunyan’s airy harmonies, which envelop the song’s calming coda, saves us from being dragged under. Transposing this bleakness further into untainted beauty is the closing harp-led instrumental – “Kind Theme” – written and played by latest cross-global Piano Magic contributor Linnea Malmberg from Sweden.
What Piano Magic pulls out from within itself during the course of this brief (but utterly essential) collection is much more than some musicians will ever manage in a life-time’s hard-slog. The latter-half of the band’s name rings truer with every release; ignore the bewitching spells being cast at your peril.