FAO#33: Land Observations & Dead Rat Orchestra

Although instrumental music is so intrinsic to our daily life, whether it’s deadly lift muzak or the enthralling score to an on-screen drama, it’s still considered somewhat of an oddity for your average music fan to stock up on releases with a wordless voice-free remit.  Which is a shame, as good instrumental music can often be a life-line for those who feel that mental clarity, as well as the imagination, can be well served without verbalisation.  These two new largely vocal-free releases certainly provide such clear-headedness and mind’s eye painting with an unpretentious flair that deserves to break down record-buying prejudices.

Land Observations – Roman Roads IV – XI (Mute, CD/LP+CD/Download)

Land Observations – Roman Roads IV – XI

Previously known for his role in overlooked late-‘90s/early-‘00s post-rock trio Appliance, London-dweller James Brooks now returns more formally to the musical fray with his solo project Land Observations after years primarily concentrating on visual arts.  Inspired conceptually by the geography and history of Roman roads stretching out from the Old City of London and working under the self-imposed restrictions of recording only with an electric six-string guitar, Roman Roads IV – XI is a remarkably minimal yet intricate collection of painterly moods, shapes and scenes.  Exploring an ensemble feel by layering and looping his guitar lines – though without resorting to fancy effects or showy virtuosity – Roman Roads covers a lot of sonic ground but without straying too disjointedly from its basic cohesive template.  Therefore innumerable pioneers and talents from the motorik, drone and post-rock worlds are referenced but not lazily plagiarised.  Thus, the throbbing percussiveness of Neu! is indirectly nodded to (“Before The Kingsland Road” and “Appian Way”), the near-ecclesiastical drones and repetitions of late-Spacemen 3/early-Spiritualized are sparsely channelled (“The Chester Road” and “From Nero´s Palace”), Yo La Tengo’s best soundtrack wares are honoured (“Via Flaminia”), the low-end meditations of Brokeback are given new routes (“Portway”) and the ethereal atmospheres of Fripp and Eno’s Evening Star are re-conjured (“Battle of Watling Street”).  Whilst the thematic backstory and parallel visual tie-ins may have been important to the delivery of the album, ultimately Roman Roads does thrive in its own beatific bubble that leaves listeners enough space to draw and attach their own mental images.  Overall then, this is a resourceful and highly recommended new beginning for a once misplaced veteran.

Listen to the “Appian Way” by Land Observations at Soundcloud.

Dead Rat Orchestra – The Guga Hunters Of Ness (Critical Heights, CD/LP/Download)

Dead Rat Orchestra – The Guga Hunters Of Ness

Although the Dead Rat Orchestra trio has been existence for the best part of a decade, this new album might be the first time many have come across the experimental ensemble’s wares thanks to the benevolence of the esoteric Critical Heights label (which also released the limited A Hint – Music For Gaugin’s Letters EP last year) and its prior use as a soundtrack to a BBC TV documentary (about the annual traditional hunting trip for gannet sea birds undertaken by the Ness community on the Isle of Lewis).  Clearly though, ten years in the relative wilderness has done the off-puttingly named Dead Rat Orchestra no creative harm.  Quite the contrary in fact; as The Guga Hunters Of Ness is one of those great soundtrack affairs that transcends as well as complements its real-life and televisual connections.  With the trio having immersed themselves in Hebridean folk idioms as well as drawing from a self-made multi-instrumentalist and improvisation-heavy pedigree, The Guga Hunters Of Ness is an intimidating prospect on paper.  However, its rustic earthy warmth and desolate moods come through invitingly and grippingly upon airing its nine tracks.  Hence, the wheezing string-led “Joy/Sorrow (Sula Sgeir)” opens things up gradually; the plaintive unplugged “Dods’ Banjo” and “Sunrise” capture serene stillness; the eerie electronically-manipulated “Black And White Houses” adds dread-inducing drones; “The Heather Isle” and “The Geshin And The Guga” supply both rural beauty and storm-looming darkness; “Salt Slide” adds field recordings from the psalm singing Ness Church Choir; and “Guga End Theme” concludes proceedings with sparse melancholic balm.  Fans of Silver Mt Zion, Fuzzy Lights, Hawk & A Hacksaw – with whom Dead Rat Orchestra have shared a stage – should find themselves at home here along with those of us currently under the spell of the proudly conceptual non-rock wares of the Second Language label.

Listen to the “The Geshin And The Guga” by Dead Rat Orchestra at Soundcloud.