FAO#29: Critical Heights (Owen Tromans, Savaging Spires & Diva)

Established by “just three chaps trying to run a label where we would want to collect all the releases ourselves,” Critical Heights is both a boutique label and self-building community enterprise, run from both London and Winchester.  Built – so far – around artists with an acute awareness of their environments, the label has big artistic ambitions in a small niche way.  With a rolling schedule for limited edition releases in desirable high-gauge packaging, bespoke live events, multimedia presentations and micro-publishing house projects, Critical Heights could be an imprint worth monitoring as closely as the previously DOA-profiled Little Red Rabbit and Second Language labels.  Whilst its more elaborate plans are hatched, here below is a round-up from the Critical Heights physical music catalogue to date, to illustrate and explore its nascent potential.

Owen Tromans – Eternal Western Youth Dream (2001-2011) (CD + bonus digital material)

Owen Tromans - Eternal Western Youth Dream (2001-2011)

With material nimbly plucked from existing albums and EPs sitting alongside two new cuts, the tongue-twistingly titled Eternal Western Youth Dream (2001-2011) concertinas together the first ten nomadic and chameleon-like solo years from long-time DOA-favourite and ex-San Lorenzo leader Owen Tromans, into one portable 15-track CD.  Bringing his densely-packed songwriting into sharper focus – replete with recurring small-town characters, oblique religious references, nostalgic melancholy and free-range warmth – across a smorgasbord of settings, this limited edition compilation provides an invaluable service to both the previously uninitiated and the loyal fan.

Crunched into one place, Tromans’ sonic breadth is celebrated more than anything across the collected pieces.  Recorded in lo-fi and mid-fi situations and backed by varying numbers of empathetic guest players, Tromans’ magpie-like musical tastes deliver his songs with both forceful melodic propulsion and intimate atmospheres.  Hence, this compendium draws many cross-references without slipping into clumsy plagiarism.  So, you’ll find nods to Mary Timony’s overlooked medievalist Mountains LP (“Swiss Army Song”); blistering heavy-jamming in the same tributary as Come’s Gentle Down The Stream (for the definitive amped-up version of “John’s On The Bridge”); appetising Yo La Tengo-flavoured electro-acoustic fuzz pop coatings (“Like Rheticus”); rapturous campfire rustics (“The Spanish Flag”); tuneful Sebadoh-meets-Superchunk guitar-slinging (“Korea”); mordant early-Arab Strap minimalism (“All My Blood”); an unplugged reimagining of Brian Eno’s initial solo years (“Youth”); and epic I Want To See The Bright Lights Tonight-indebted folk-rock yearning (“Acre”).

What Owen Tromans occasionally lacks in finesse and tidiness is overcome by steadfast enthusiasm and pure heart.  Moreover, few others have so distinctively tapped into actually celebrating suburban life, in songs that seem permanently suspended between summertime bliss and autumnal sadness.  All in all then, this is a fine distillation of a productive decade from The Bard of The British Burbs.

Savaging Spires – self-titled (CD/Vinyl)

Savaging Spires - self-titled

Arriving with little or no backstory and a deliberate dedication to anonymity, this eponymous debut from Savaging Spires has ‘cult hit’ written through it like a stick of Blackpool Rock.  Seemingly the work of relative youngsters of a British origin, whom have evidently read the acid-folk rule book forwards and backwards, this album may be marinated in more psychedelic pastoralism than is perhaps strictly healthy.  However, the record is executed so well, that it’s near-impossible to avoid becoming addicted to its charms.  Broadly split between standalone songs and sound-collaging passages, the ensemble glide seamlessly through the pagan eeriness of The Wicker Man soundtrack, Espers’ druggy bucolic edginess, the underrated invention of Tyrannosaurus Rex’s Unicorn and the affectionate irreverence of Can’s ‘Ethnological Forgery Series’ pieces.  Rendered with harmonious yet freewheeling boy-girl vocal interlacing and more diverse acoustic instrumentation than one might trip over backstage at the Green Man Festival, the dozen gathered tracks shrewdly straddle the line between the shambolic looseness and meticulous craftsmanship with knowing but captivating flair.  Quite where this mysterious group will head in future is unclear but middle-aged men with unkempt beards might one day be fighting for this soon-to-be-rare artefact, with almost as much ferocity as they once did for original vinyl copies of Vashti Bunyan’s Just Another Diamond Day.  Grab it whilst it’s hot (and affordable).

Diva – The Glitter End (CD/digital)

Diva - The Glitter End

This solo debut from the LA-based Diva Dompé (erstwhile member of BlackBlack and Pocahaunted) may come wrapped in sleeve imagery that worryingly suggests Lady Gaga dabbling with Bat For Lashes’ make-up box, but its audio aesthetics thankfully provide a far more genuinely avant-garde proposition.  Drenched in watery yet metallic electronic primitivism, The Glitter End sounds like it was recorded in the engine room of a submarine.  Blurring murky tropicalia, Germanic analogue synthesiser soundscapes, gamelan percussion, twinkling sci-fi incantations and warped Solex-style sampling – sometimes all within the space of one song – this isn’t an album for the unadventurous.  At her best and in moderation, Dompé uses her diaphanous tones and disembodied stew of sounds to create the powerful dual feeling of womb-like serenity and claustrophobia.  Taken en masse, the uniqueness does slip into slightly smothering repetition.  Ultimately, if it were slimmed-down and spread-out across the immersive grooves of a 12” EP, The Glitter End might have been more striking statement.  That said, if you’re looking for a real antidote to the polish and soulless professional of mainstream (lower-case) divas, this is no sugary placebo.

Also available on Critical Heights:

Instrumental twin-guitar improvisations on Delphic Vapours’ strung-out and sat-down Get Off Their Knees album, for fans of Mountains, Cluster and Sonic Youth’s SYR series.

Emotive post-hardcore and broken-down ballads on Incredible Weapons’ eponymous EP.

Owen Tromans and Wooded Wand masterfully covering each other’s songs across a must-have split-single.

Listen at Soundcloud for Critical Heights tracks.

Read more and buy from the Critical Heights homepage.