Believers Roast BR015 DD & CD album, 44m 52s
£7.90 DD £10 CD
Music needs to be comprehensible; it is, after all, a form of communication. The more readily digestible it is, however, and the more easily it slips down, the fewer hooks there are to hang any unique meanings on it. There is an inherently unstable dialectic between the familiar and the novel, and somewhere around the mid-point of that duality’s oscillations are the sites at which it resonates with its listeners. The strangeness with which Stars In Battledress tend to strike the listener’s ear is not that of complete unfamiliarity; indeed, their music’s harmonies are primarily built from progressions of triadic chords, and its melodies from notes closely related to those chords. Its rhythms are a matter of regular pulses organised into identifiable phrases and repeating stress patterns. But musically, before one even attends to its mysterious lyrical texts, this is deeply ambiguous material. It seems to be neither tonal nor atonal, but highly contingent, as it presents us with successive, unexpected points of rest, from which we look back at the harmonies we have just experienced and hear them revolving around a tonic other than the one we had been led to believe was in force. The tierce de picardie, a major chord concluding a minor cadence, may be employed as a pivot point to shift from one key to another, and this is a manoeuvre that has been popular in psychedelic music from the beginning; the substitution of a chord of major quality for a minor chord built on the same root note, or vice versa, offers an opportunity to change harmonic direction abruptly, and many of the songs on In Droplet Form employ such strategies, or mimic the effect of doing so. This can lend a composition a whimsical quality, as the music seems quite literally to have shifted its harmonic grounds on a whim, but the powerful sense of purpose with which Stars In Battledress pursue their continually revised melodic destinations overrides any such impression, notwithstanding that the new tonic for which the music seems to reach may be a chimera, never actually to be stated. Similarly in the world of rhythm; regular pulses, individual beats, usually subdivided into pairs of notes (though sometimes compound meters are employed as well), stream continuously from start to finish of each song, more or less metronomically, although the duo are quite willing and able to vary their tempos for expressive effect. Regular meters are, for the most part, suggested by the phrasing, although frequently less predictable, odd-numbered groupings are also employed; but the music never commits itself unequivocally to one meter or another. Instead the stream of pulses continues to flow like a river, and stress patterns or vocal phrases may produce the impression of any meter, or of several simultaneously, and without drums to mark differentially the start and middle of each bar, the rhythmic structure remains as contingent and ambiguous as the harmony. This is not music which refuses to commit itself, it is music which commits itself in more than one direction, according to principles which are more quantum than relativistic, simultaneously a particle and a wave. If it were a spoken language it would be one in which the phonemes, and even many whole words were recognisable, but in which grammar and syntax had been re-purposed to accommodate meanings too nuanced and particular to survive being coupled to conventional vehicles.
Stars In Battledress are a duo, and they have not taken the opportunity afforded by a studio recording to expand their arrangements beyond what they could perform as such. The textures of their compositions are orchestrated around acoustic or clean electric guitar and keyboards, the latter usually either a piano or a reedy, harmonium-like organ voice. The most obvious exception to this palette is the jagged, distorted electric guitar (and then distorted organ) around which ‘Tks2’ is built, but the sound of the orchestrations is generally consistent, and quite identifiable as belonging to Stars In Battledress. The two instrumental voices are joined by two human voices, primarily that of guitarist Richard Larcombe, but harmonies are sometimes in evidence, presumably courtesy of his brother James Larcombe, who plays the keyboard instruments. These relatively sparse resources are not augmented in any obvious way on this album, and I would imagine that these songs are presented in pretty much the same way that they are in live performance (my recollection of their shows would tend to support this assumption). The recordings are mostly constructed in a conventional way, aimed at clarity and fidelity, although ‘Hunt The Button’ is set in a space defined by hissing white noise. The compositions themselves are songs, inasmuch as there is singing, but they don’t partake much of the conventional structure of the pop- rock- or folk-song; they are usually strophic to some degree, featuring refrains or repeated phrases which acquire some familiarity by the conclusion of each piece, but don’t expect a sing-along chorus! There are, however, some recognisable stylistic elements in the music, despite its generally unconventional formal characteristics; it has a ‘folky’ feel much of the time, and is often reminiscent of the light-operatic approach to popular song-craft. Don’t let that lull you into any expectation of easy, unchallenging listening though: you’ll hear the influence, but those materials have been made very much the duo’s own. Lyrically, your guess is as good as mine; had I been provided with lyric sheets I would doubtless have enjoyed a rewarding afternoon or two making sense of them, but quite honestly I’ve been too busy attending to the extraordinary settings in which they are presented to offer any coherent analysis. What I will say is that they don’t use words like ‘yeah’ or ‘baby’ very much; and that topically they are less than obvious, seeming to be more concerned with quite complex representations of human experience than with specific subjects or incidents. There are many excellent turns of phrase, unexpected references, and striking images, but I haven’t attempted to string them together into the over-arching themes that may or may not be present.
This music is strikingly unusual, often jarring in its effect, but although it has its moments of angularity, and even harshness, its aesthetic is one of great charm and delicate beauty. There is something rarified about it, its pale colours washing over its mutable structures with great clarity, but with a confusing rapidity of affective change, many of its nuances passing so quickly as to be barely perceptible. As such, this is an album that rewards repeat listening. This essential prettiness to the sound is present, to my ear, even in the music’s most atonal or dissonant moments, each note placed delicately and precisely, like the positioning of flowers in the Japanese art of ikebana. The ‘difficulty’ in the music lies in what the listener will (usually) bring to it, which is a particular set of associations with sounds which stray outside the conventions of commonplace musical practice; we are conditioned from an early age to hear dissonances (and other transgressive sounds) as tense or threatening, and to expect regular, emphatic cadences, with the same predictable sense of closure as an episode of Poirot. When we hear sounds that stand outside those conventions, we contextualise them as best we can: if we are used to hearing only the music of the western mainstream we may hear a confusing mass of moments of tension, passing chords with no resolution, no meaning as we have been trained to apprehend it in music. Or if we have heard some musics in which ‘other’ sounds are employed, music of other cultures, or of the avant-garde, we will likely associate what we are hearing with that, and ascribe meanings to it based on our understanding of those analogies. This is still to miss the point, however. Stars In Battledress have forged their own musical language, not one without precedent, or without relation to the practices of other musicians, but their own nevertheless, and one which is very specific to their work, and to the meanings they are setting out to communicate. The keys to decoding their language are all in the music, particularly if the listener is familiar with Secrets and Signals, their debut album, but this is a task which must be approached with open ears and an open mind. Music with something genuinely particular to say always requires some effort on the part of the listener, even when it is ostensibly far more conventional in form than the songs on In Droplet Form; but once you have opened your ears to the otherworldly affective universe of the Larcombes’ soundworld, listening to it is anything but hard work. This is exquisitely beautiful music, and it is all the more beautiful for its rarity and its specificity. As much effort has gone into answering the questions whose answers most musicians take for granted as those musicians usually put into their entire practice; here nothing is taken for granted, and the aesthetics of the compositions are as original as their material forms. I am lost for words in attempting to sum up this review in a sentence, as the music I’m discussing is so unusual, so full of complexity and meaning. All I can say is that I have rarely been so profoundly affected by a recording, or so filled with admiration for its authors.