Cyril Secq / Orla Wren – Branches

Cyril Secq/Orla Wren - Branches

Cyril Secq / Orla Wren – Branches

I’ve previously opined on these pages (in my review of the Vic Mars’ excellent album, The Land And The Garden) that ambient is, by and large, in the doldrums. “There’s way too much of it and it all sounds the same,” goes my old-geezer grump. What once took ingenuity and was the product of well-considered aesthetic  choice has been neutered by the repetitive ‘download the app-pack’ sound of a thousand ‘mono-tone big whooshing roar’ pieces, which alternate with the tedious ‘minimal piano-like noodle, just on the white notes’. Not only does the world have to endure landfill indie, it now has to entertain landfill ambient, too. Does anyone remember quite how exciting the prospect of a new Fennesz or Colleen album once was? Because you knew they would sound different and unexpected. Does anyone remember that ambient is actually supposed to hold excitement? Fortunately, some brave souls do. Cyril Secq and tui (aka Orla Wren) stand squarely among those ranks.

The back history of Orla Wren is studded with high quality albums, of an evolving sound nature, most of which feature  hand-picked cadres of sympathetic musicians and singers whose varied sonic contributions were shaped by tui onto and into his sound art backdrops, thus creating a highly melodic, harmonic and evocative democratic musical weave. In more recent times (on both Soil Steps and Moccasin Flowers for example) he has pared back this original process (it arguably having peaked with the truly ‘deluxe’ sweep and sumptuous tonality of Book Of The Folded Forest) to reveal a more autumnal and Spartan musical pallet and in tandem, here, with acoustic guitarist Cyril Secq, this development reaches a new apex with the emotive and adroitly balanced structures of Branches.

So, what are the particular strengths that allow Branches to rise above the common herd that I take such exception to? Actually, pretty straightforward ones. This is very far indeed from being a conservative effort yet it succeeds, primarily, due to the combination of Secq being a singularly talented and tasteful guitar player and tui, fundamentally a non-musician, being the kind of sound artist who actually understands and loves sound (on both a technical and artistic level) and fully comprehends that his job is to create a fresh sonic ‘world’, not merely to present us with a bunch of desultory field recordings and a lame excuse as to why they should be inflicted on any passing ambient punter. It’s part ability, part ambition and a very great deal of heart.

Cyril Secq/Orla Wren - Branches (standard CD version)

Cyril Secq / Orla Wren – Branches (standard CD version)

Best known for his work in the elusive and elegantly eclectic French instrumentalists Astrid, Cyril Secq is both a logical yet also suitably radical candidate to play Fripp to tui’s Eno. His musical grounding in fields as wide as folk, jazz and classical allows Secq to bring an exceptionally broad range of both motif style and tonal colouration to the party. Moreover, whereas on previous recordings, the Orla Wren tradition would incline to the adjustment and absorption of any particular instrument into a sonic whole, here the tendency is to allow Secq’s guitar stylings to sit a-top of the mix, thus lending an extra emotional narrative to the proceedings. On occasion the style can be both wonderfully muted and streamlined, Secq wringing maximum effect from the minimum number of notes. Imagine if Nick Drake had written the desolate “Horn” on a somewhat happier day and you’re half way there.  In a work of this nature, where a complimentary consistency across the pieces is of prime importance, it’s slightly witless to single our particular tracks (which, en passant, are numbered in French). Nevertheless I’d defy anyone not to yield to the almost Fred Frith-like angularity of “Première Branche” or the way that the high Flamencoesque guitar movement of “Quatrième Branche” fuses with the most peculiar, tui-contributed, squeaking and burbling.

I’d certainly recommend that you check out the albums The One Two Bird And The Half Horse and the aforementioned  Book Of The Folded Forest if you want to hear the natural Orla Wren sound in its full flood of high emotional excelsis. Branches, as implied by the name, represents a kind of elegant off-shoot and is the sound of older, wiser, and maybe even slightly sadder heads. But most importantly this work continues in the tradition of all Orla Wren albums (superbly abetted here by Secq) of a music that, although superficially suggestive of calmness and a meditative nature, is in fact a music of excited anticipation, of bated breath. Herein lays both its true difference and its little touch of genius. Breathe it in.