Writing about instrumental music can be a hazardous pastime for the unwary. Without those easy emotional shoe-ins provided by even the most oblique lyrics, it’s all too easy to get sidetracked into ridiculously flowery descriptive passages and clichéd efforts to explain the sounds you’re hearing in minute detail. I know, I’ve done this fairly often – and I suspect will again here. But occasionally a record comes along like "Sycamore and Friends" which is so packed to the rafters with inventive, odd and bewildering sounds that it becomes hard not to do just that. Formed from the scattered remnants of a host of impressive former Glasgow acts with a pedigree which reminds me just how rich and diverse the 1990s could be at their best, Sycamore is something of a peripatetic creature. This collection of music has taken almost five years to assemble, the three core members drifting between collaborative projects and then returning to dust off recordings almost half a decade old. The simple thing to do in the post-digital world would be to package them up, and post them to Bandcamp for a quick buck. Characteristically Sycamore took a more complicated and meandering route, bringing in a whole cast of friends and guest musicians to revitalise and augment their five years of work. The result is six varied, compelling and sometimes emotionally forceful tracks which find their origins deep in the mists of musical history.
At the heart of all of the compositions are the twin guitars of Jer Reid, a prolific serial collaborator, and Stevie Jones, formerly of El Hombre Trajeado among others. Despite the rich and complex mixture of instrumentation drawn into "Sycamore and Friends" throughout, it’s these two guitars which provide the force and focus to almost all of these pieces. The guitars are usually clean, unadorned by effects and even more powerful for that – when both are working together they provide a strange pulse to proceedings which reminded me of Louisville’s long forgotten Rodan. On the opening "A New Cold" the guitars are as much percussion instruments as anything else, augmenting Shane Connolly’s solid drums to shore up a woozy piece which speeds up and slows down like an unwinding gramophone. There is a little vocal accompaniment here too - provided by Aby Vulliamy - notably a Wells/Moffat contributor - who’s slow drift towards an abandoned wail of despair provides the feel of an ancient Yiddish folk song delivered from a scratchy 78.
'467’ begins with gentle, discordant guitar and piano notes alongside scrapes and groans of viola. A little way into the piece this solidifies into an urgent, driven epic with a flute melody dancing among stabs of angry guitar. 'Pour' opens by once again showcasing Connolly's drumming, while a jazzy guitar line nags away. The effect is strangely calming and hypnotic, particularly when a second guitar joins with a low rhythmic thrum. Somewhere along the way it collapses into a passage of genuinely lovely, delicately twining guitars which set the tone for the gentle ending of the piece. By complete contrast 'Anthem for Rondo' is a shuddering, swaggering affair. Anchored on urgent drums and competing brass melodies it dips and soars, adopting and subverting the standard post-rock loud/quiet/loud construction. But this owes as much if not more to experimental jazz themes, which are buried somewhere within its epic, middle eastern fanfares and military drum rolls which are stirring and strangely sinister all at once.
Named for a remote beach on the Isle of Harris, 'Luskentyre' evokes calm landscapes but hints at the power if the sea with its dramatic crescendos and washes of sound. When the instruments reach their peak in reverberating pulses a little delicate vocal accompaniment is introduced. It is distant, subdued but oddly intriguing. There is a final, brutal assault where the guitars join to form a single, powerful blast before the waters are stilled again. The album closes with the lengthy ‘A Sun’ which is perhaps the most traditionally constructed ‘rock’ song here. The guitars duel for dominance over a thunder of bass and drums, slipping into a deceptively simple groove. But this is Sycamore and convention is soon dispensed with as the track collapses into a tumult of scratchy, detuned strings. It soon picks itself up and is reinvented as a jittering, nails-down-the blackboard squall of noise. It’s a fittingly challenging way to end a record which is built around the idea of never quite doing what you expect.
"Sycamore and Friends" is an intriguing, sometimes contrary record which in many ways doesn’t give up its secrets easily. But investing a little time in exploring its landscapes, especially through a pair of decent headphones is a very rewarding experience. It’s a dizzy, surprisingly emotive journey with a collective which delights in being able to weave huge, complex sounds out of very simple ingredients. If you’re one of those listeners who finds their patience tested by long, instrumental pieces I’d urge you to give this a spin – its compact length and sheer range of variations and shifts will surely hold your attention.
One of the challenges of these huge collaborative projects is assembling the cast to play live, but Sycamore propose to do just that on 3rd August at the Kinning Park Centre in an almost certainly never to be repeated launch event. "Sycamore and Friends" is available now from Ubisano Records – home of that first, stunning RM Hubbert album – and CD copies will be ready for the launch.