Believers Roast 2013, CD & DD album, 27m 24s
£8+ DD £8 CD
The running times of the nine pieces collected on Mandrake fall within the broad compass of the usual song lengths of pop and rock music, and they are gathered into a whole which may fall a little short of the usual length of a contemporary album, but whose duration would once have been a quite respectable proportion of the day to find occupied by the contents of an LP. But not all albums are curated on the same basis, some assembling a disparate selection united only by their ostensible author, some evincing a discernible sense of creative coherence, and others united by an overarching theme, which may begin to elide the distinction between their constituent tracks, or between the commercial-music idea of the album as a portfolio of related work bundled for bulk sale, and the classical idea of a single piece of music divided into episodes. The account of this album to be read on its Genepool page explicitly describes these pieces as movements, and there is a real sense of continuity in listening to Mandrake, owing on a superficial level to the consistent instrumental resources with which it is orchestrated, but more fundamentally because it’s written that way, because its emotional contours seem to pursue a single and meaningful narrative arc. Whether they were written as movements of a single piece, or sequenced after the fact to give that impression, perhaps with some transitional tweaking, is impossible to judge from the recorded sound, and is perhaps not such a simple either/or proposition from the creative perspective, in any case; but the music that Rael Jones has presented us with feels like a whole. Such an approach is no longer exactly groundbreaking in the world of rock, but the textural and tonal language of Mandrake cleaves rather more obviously to the Western art tradition.
It does, in some senses, resemble the rock/classical fusions of the avant-garde progressive rock tradition, but in relatively unimportant ways, such as the use of steel-string acoustic guitar, and some simple harmonic rhythms, such as the two chord vamps in ‘Lacuna’, the opening piece. The idea of fusion will only be of use here if you are rigidly beholden to notions of stylistic integrity as lists of ingredients; this is essentially a string quintet album, with some piano and guitar (including a solo piece for each of those instruments). Its musical materials encompass some elements that may be related to Jones’ work in the brilliant avant-rock band Thumpermonkey, but there is far more overt evidence of his experience composing to picture. While these pieces tend not to exhibit the grandeur or bombast of much music that claims a debt to film music, it is very easy to imagine the scenes or action that they might accompany; the stop-start, almost slapstick rhythms of ‘Jimmy Runs Home’, for instance, seem full of theatrical ‘business’. The discipline with which Jones has restricted his palette of instrumental resources is notable (it being all too easy nowadays to throw anything you can think of into a recording), a decision that affords rather more opportunity to showcase his skills as an orchestrator, given that we are not distracted by continual sonic novelty. The relative timbral consistency enhances the drama of textural changes, such as the shift from the jerky contrapuntal rhythms in ‘Feet’ to the serene homophonic writing in ‘High, Plain’; the contrast he exploits between legato and tremolo bowing in the opening to ‘Silflay’ also has real impact, of a sort that might easily have been lost in a more cluttered instrumental landscape. The last mentioned piece is also a great example of the impression of dialogue Jones is able to develop between the fluid sound of the strings and the hard attack of the guitar and piano, sharing melodic statements between the bowed and (in this case) plucked instruments in a subtle manner, that produces constant variety and interest without obscuring the sense of the tune.
The harmonic language of Mandrake is relatively approachable, although it is very much a twentieth century, post-Romantic soundworld; even where the tonality evinces some ambiguity, as in the driving, jerky ‘Chug Up, Chug Down’, it never erects a barrier against the audience. Rather, it veils its meanings somewhat, producing an effect that is intriguing or mysterious, but also aesthetically welcoming. Its emotional range is not expansive, but as with most aspects of the composition and orchestration, shows focus: Rael Jones has wisely chosen to speak on specific affective topics, as it were, and the consequence is that the meanings, while not closed, are clear and precise. Its saddest moments are pretty damn sad, but they’re not overwhelmingly tragic, and although its opposite extreme is quite emphatically joyful, there is always an element of emotional complexity; in other words, this is not melodrama, but a representation of lived experience as it may actually feel to a reasonably reflective individual. It doesn’t lack creative courage, by any means, and this observation should not be taken to imply that Mandrake sticks to the middle of the road, to the grey, the generic or the undistinguished; rather, it is beautifully, gloriously, perceptively humane and particular. The first piece that I heard from this album, owing to its early release on YouTube, was ‘Silflay’, and that initial audition set the tone for my experience of the whole release; for me that piece is exemplary of Jones’ approach to writing for this ensemble, his creative interests and the emotional territory that he takes as his ‘subject’. He shows, in ‘Silflay’ in particular, and in Mandrake in general, real compositional breadth and depth, and this is not simply a matter of the various clever devices of orchestration that I’ve highlighted above, or of how wisely he chooses his creative battles; most importantly it is a matter of his capacity to relate these things to the central thrust of musical discourse in Western tonal music, to melody. There’s not a melody on this album that is anything less than perfectly judged, subtly realised, and brilliantly contextualised. Everything supports the melodies, and the melodies are well worth supporting. The subtlety and sophistication with which the melody of ‘Boca Del Cielo’ references a whole world of Hispanic music is a prime example of the quality of Jones’ tunes, but the top line of ‘Silflay’ really stands out for its otherworldly, and yet touchingly prosaic emotional compass, its shifting and contingent seascape of mingled existential colours. From the first, gentle broken piano chord of ‘Lacuna’ to the final, lingering guitar dyad of ‘Friendly Reminder’, Mandrake is both painfully beautiful, and utterly engaging.