Equally blessed and burdened with too many musical ideas to be contained within just one outlet, David Sheppard and Keiron Phelan have seemingly sought to compartmentalise their work into several self-contained projects. Hence, State River Widening’s sublime three albums to date have locked the twosome into pastoral post-rock grooves with likeminded collaborators (namely drummers Jon Steele and Howard Monk, violinist/vocalist Pam Ribbeck, and reclusive 60s/70s Britfolk-singer Anne Briggs) in tow. Separately, Sheppard has also – with David Astor – fused esoteric electronica to enigmatic Eno-inspired soundscapes (as Ellis Island Sound) and stretched into experimentalist art-pop terrain (in The Wisdom of Harry). Amidst all these different activities, Sheppard and Phelan have also previously released one album under their own names – 2002’s O, Little Stars – which stripped their combined ideas down to dark but warm primordial minimalism, in the process theorising how the likes of Steve Reich and Labradford might sound after an intravenous infusion of melody. Now comes the long-awaited sequel to O, Little Stars, in the shape of Harps Old Master.
However, rather than simply continue the trajectory of O, Little Stars, Sheppard and Phelan have instead adopted a far more laissez-faire attitude to fortifying the borders between their partitioned-off sonic endeavours. With the sluice gates nonchalantly ajar, Harps Old Master therefore channels the various tributaries of the duo’s previous releases, together or apart, as well as soaking up freshly sprung new sources of influence. In the process, the Phelan/Sheppard partnership has beautifully rendered an amorphous array of cinematic set pieces.
Certainly some of the credit for the widening of the Phelan/Sheppard palette must go to Josh Hillman (Willard Grant Conspiracy) on violin/viola, Guy Fixsen (Laika) on trumpets/moog bass/drum machines/production duties, and unknown Spanish chanteuse Ines Naranjo. Combined with their directors’ multi-instrumentalism, the ensemble delivers an admirably democratic and diverse affair. No better is the intoxicating mix of influences and players illustrated than on the sublime “Weaving Song,” wherein Naranjo’s elegiac wordless tones float across a sea of serene strings, muted brass, lilting acoustic guitars, and clockwork percussion, recalling both the best bits of Brokeback’s Looks at the Bird and the spooked acid-rustics of Espers. “Weaving Song” is merely a highlight amongst highlights, though, and the rest of the album’s intricate spells are cast with just as much craft and commitment. The strung-out multi-part suite of “Broken in the Wrong Places” drifts delightfully from double-bass dub to shimmering unplugged avant-folk. “Tjarno” provides chamber music with a disquieting electric guitar underbelly. A meditative wash of guitars and ambient drones underscores luscious vocals from Naranjo on the curiously christened “Collapsing Cat” and the closing “Lady Never City.” Elsewhere, the stunning “Oriental Star” bleeds Far Eastern strums and chimes into an In a Silent Way-era Miles Davis jazz cumulonimbus, and “Parachute Seeds” blurs the lines of the State River Widening-blueprints with soaring orchestral embellishments and fidgety electronics.
As it should be apparent, unpeeling Harps Old Master skin-through-skin, layer-by-layer, and crotchet-after-quaver inspires a veritable tome’s worth of detailed descriptive praise. Nevertheless, mere words don’t really do justice to the album’s spirit of invention, grasp of moods, and range of styles, but buying a copy and gluing it (metaphorically) into your stereo for a few weeks will indeed give Phelan and Sheppard the fairest trial they deserve.