16 April 2013

eagleowl - This Silent Year

Album Review: eagleowl - This Silent Year (Fence)

Earlier this year the world - or at least the part of it that lives incessantly on social networks - entered meltdown as My Bloody Valentine suddenly released their first material for 22 years. Waiting for your favourite bands to produce new work is never easy, and as everyday concerns sap time and resources it sometimes seems a miracle that emerging acts manage to take the major step of recording an album at all. Nowhere near that far adrift of a schedule, but famously tardy, eagleowl have finally taken a similarly momentous leap. Equipped with a full six piece band including a real drummer, and backed by the encouraging and supportive ministrations of Fence Records who have accommodated them in a host of live events in recent years, the band's long-awaited and sometimes seemingly unlikely debut album has arrived. In the process it has earned an almost immediate slot in this year's list of memorable releases.

Beginning in characteristically understated fashion with "Forgotten" with its echoing footsteps and forlorn guitar chimes, "This Silent Year" was never likely to be a feel-good summer record. If you've followed eagleowl thus far you'll have witnessed their potential for sweeping, orchestral dynamics which - in recorded terms at least - has so far only really achieved fruition on their superb Toad Session. However here, recorded sympathetically by Tommy Perman of FOUND, the band positively shimmers - achingly pretty harmonies, swoons of cello and thunderous double-bass courtesy of Clarissa Cheong underpinning Bart's sparse guitar and low-key, wounded but defiant vocals. Strings are allowed to buzz and resonate, microphones are cranked up to catch every breath and whisper - it's a surprisingly perfect way to hear the band, not dissimilar to the pin-drop echo of an awestruck Gnomegame audience just a few short days back in Fife.

The early part of the album is defined by a pair of tracks which stake out eagleowl's territory unmistakably. First on "Eagleowl vs. Woodpigeon" which judders along with a choppy, waltz time rhythm, linked by screeches and swoops of strings. The guitar plays a more defined role on "Not Over" where the spirit of Galaxie 500 is summoned and forced to consider how they might have sounded with a string section in their regular line-up. As Bart notes that "it's so quiet when you're not here" and increasingly insistently urges "say something to me", the themes of tense silence and mute acquiesence which thread through this record begin to emerge. Plucked violin strings and a groaningly lovely cello melody from Hannah Shepherd provide a backdrop to a whole-band harmony which resolves into an almost maritime crash of cymbals.

"Summerschool" pitches bell-clear guitar notes and plangent bass into a heady, hazy blur of boy/girl vocals redolent of the finest moments of Yo La Tengo's slower passages. The pace is glacial, but there is warmth in the delivery. There is a bona fide pop hit at the heart of "It's So Funny" with its jaunty pulse of bass and near interplay of vocals - but this is immediately sabotaged by a radio unfriendly refrain of "It's so funny, we don't fuck anymore". Somewhere in Surrey an unconcerned, mahogany faced Cliff Richard plays tennis - unaware that his biggest UK hit of the 1970s has formed the basis for perhaps the most directly bitter track on "This Silent Year".

The ambitious but surprisingly focused twelve minutes of "Too Late In The Day" centre on a mournful violin drone which winds around gentle drums and a fragile, strummed guitar which almost threatens to drown in the rich arrangement of strings. Then, finally, the sonic extremes which have been hinted at throughout the album burst free. A thunderous storm of distorted guitar noise and drums rages while the strings are tossed and blown around like the fishing boats in Anstruther harbour. Almost a relief after this howl of rage, "Laughter" is something of an old stalwart in the eagleowl canon - but is presented here as a brief, sparse and emotive full-stop to close the album. It's both a look back over the shoulder at eagleowl's past and a nod to the future.

It might have taken them a while, but in "This Silent Year" eagleowl have captured the resonant dynamics of their live shows in a way their previous recordings only hinted at. There's no doubting this is a beautifully arranged, musically accomplished record - but it's also strikingly direct, emotionally intelligent and heart-piercingly dark matter at times. The past couple of years may well have been relatively silent in the eagleowl nest, but things are about to get a lot noisier...

eagleowl release "This Silent Year" on vinyl, CD and download via Fence Records on May 13th. A special pre-release purchase is available at the Fence website. The album will be launched at three shows:

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