Tom Slatter – Iron Bark (progressive rock/ steampunk)

self released, 2011, CD album, 55m 15s


It’s rare that something truly original comes my way, something that I can’t really put in a box with anything else. Tom Slatter presents me with music for which I can find some comparisons, certainly: there’s a nuanced, psychedelic experimentalism to his compositions, reminiscent of some twentieth century classical music, that relates to some artists that I’ve previously reviewed here, such as Knifeworld, or Karda Estra. But as an artistic totality, I can safely say I’ve never heard the likes of Iron Bark before.

This is complex music, the way that jazz is, although it’s not jazz, stylistically or methodologically. It rolls through harmonies and discursive phrasing in a way that is neither happy nor sad, but that echoes the ineffable three-dimensionality of emotional experience. The unpredictable and asymmetric formal structures of the music undercut our usual narrative expectations and question our need for closure, although these songs have their own strong logic, and their changeable gestural schemas are aimed precisely at the creation of a dramatic narrative.

These songs tell tales. They are dark tales of steampunk horror, of unelective surgical procedures, of night time murders in imagined post-Victorian cityscapes. They are tales of the sort that, in prose fiction, rely on well imagined characters and attention to technical and social detail, if they are to rise above the level of pulp fiction, of conventional adventures with interchangeable decorative props. Obviously there are only so many words you can put into a song, but a song is more than some words and some musical scaffolding.

Texturally Iron Bark is mostly acoustic rock, although there are some electric guitar melodies, some synths and some strings. Bass and drums outline complex structures and technically demanding rhythms, while the guitars are played with a commanding lyricism, and the whole is composed with a sense of melody that is finely honed, and informed by an acute awareness of its emotional and dramatic effect. Slatter is a musician of considerable skill, and a composer capable of encompassing a very big picture. Ambition is an admirable quality in a musician, although too much of it can lead to hubris; but it takes an advanced musical awareness to even conceive an ambition as elaborate and challenging as the mountain this recording sets out to scale.

Slatter pulls this off extremely well. His characters, and his locational atmospheres live and breathe in the complexities of his music, while his lyrics sketch the contours of the narratives without either overdetermining them, or over-generalising. This album brings together two of my greatest enthusiasms, two which I had no expectation to ever see successfully fused: complex, creative music and speculative fiction. Many people have attempted to write fantasy or science fiction epics in the form of rock operas, but few of them do anything much for me. Iron Bark is an accomplished essay in the field of truly progressive music (and I’d gladly listen to this material if it was instrumental), but it is also an involving, exciting, fully fledged piece of speculative fiction. The parts of this album are excellent, but it is still much more than the sum of them.

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