Spheruleus and Friends – William Barber

William Barber cover image

Spheruleus and Friends – William Barber

Delving into the hermetically-sealed ambient world in pursuit of the reviewable is a mildly contradictory affair. These are not albums designed to compete for attention, works by bands whose very names often celebrate their own sense of obscurity and (presumably) are meant only to be critically assessed in relation to each other, if at all. Life, however, can’t always be about things ‘falling away’ and hiding under the duvet. A fact long recognised by Hibernate boss Jonathan Lees, a man with a track record (in this neck of the woods) of sifting the weak from the strong or, possibly, the weak from the merely languid. So, one can approach Spheruleus and Friends’ soberly christened album William Barber safe in the knowledge that one is dealing with a full-blooded enterprise.

For all that critique of ambient as a genre, it is often the case that a little delving reveals a seam of silver and that is certainly the case here. Despite its ultra-sober title William Barber is more charming that a cabinet full of antique musical boxes. Additionally, ambient musicians have the musical generosity to successfully dream-as-a-team, for while Spheruleus (aka Harry Towell) himself is unmistakably ‘Head-Amb’, here, this is the collective product of a Hibernate super-group, including contributions from Isnaj Dui, Antonymes, Caught in the Wake Forever, Field Rotation and Lees himself.

The genesis of the project lies in Lee’s discovery of wax cylinder recordings (dated 1906) of a local school, including poetry recitals and introductions to musical performances by William Barber, the headmaster of the time. Utilising the pensive and timeworn atmosphere generated by these historical artefacts, additional field recordings of the location were mixed in to create an MR Jamesesque sense of ghostly over-lapping time echoes. Barber’s voice comes to us, distantly yet clearly, intoning his long ago utterances. It might be imagined that a whiff of Hauntology would surround all this, yet the ensemble adroitly avoid the archness that often accompanies that micro-genre by aiming consistently at a straight story emotional directness and simplicity, always ensuring that the concept remains the servant (not the master) of the music.

As an album this is beautifully structured, the individual tracks (their titles being taken from the school’s historical records) mostly being kept to brief duration, thus emphasising the work’s postcard-from-the-past narrative. There’s a consistently strong awareness of foreground and background throughout, thus side stepping the clumsy flatness that can occur in less well constructed ambient music and the pieces alternate between complimentary light and sombre tones. In his solo work, Spheruleus uses acoustic instruments alongside electronic processing to create rustic and melancholy compositions. All of those qualities combine to create an evocative template on William Barber with the notable addition of multiple chamber ensemble sounding instrumentation, the baroquely bowed cellos and legato bass flutes being particularly effective in providing a meditative setting for the wanderings of Barber’s vocal spirit. Top of the class.