Autumnsongs Records AR018CD, 2014, DD & CD album, 41m 29s
£6.49 DD £11 CD
The sweet clarity of Rhys Marsh’s voice unifies his album with a luminous, melancholy calm, effortlessly bridging the steepest dynamic gradients in arrangements that can swing rapidly from finger-picked acoustic guitar to weighty chunks of rock. The instrumental textures on Sentiment are dramatic and powerful, but there is never any doubt in which strand’s service the whole thick, complex braid is marshalled. This is rock music in the service of song, or it is the songwriter’s art writ large and bold, in the deep, layered colours of which progressive rock orchestration is capable. It’s not about instrumental prowess, or even about melodic invention, with nary a solo in sight, and its textures are always integrated, not showcasing any particular voice (apart from Marsh’s own), or drawing any attention to the considerable virtuosity with which they are assembled. The creative agenda that informs this music is one which is more usually to be found informing the bare-bones acoustic recordings of singer-songwriters; and that is precisely what Rhys Marsh is. That he happens to work in a louder idiom than many should not distract us: when we listen to his music it’s the song that is the sole and exclusive repository of his meanings. That ineffable intersection between melody, poetry, harmony and texture, where crafts and practices are fused as completely as they are in the theatre, is the place where we can meet the artist on his own ground. Forget about what any of the elements of this music sound like in isolation, because their capacity to signify is bound up entirely in their relationship with every other element. This fundamental, radical integration is the goal of any songwriter that understands the character of their endeavour, but it is rarely to be heard so convincingly rendered, especially in arrangements as complex and full as these.
There’s a bit of buzz and clatter at the beginning of ‘Calling In The Night’, the opening tune; it’s the sort of noise an amplifier makes when someone’s moving the guitar that’s plugged into it. It locates us in the studio. It is contrived to represent the real, unconstructed situation in which Rhys Marsh strolled into his studio, put down his cup of tea, scratched his arse, and began making music. It’s the sole chink of light in the dark, predominantly claustrophobic soundworld that follows. This is not to say that the music lacks contrast; there is a great deal of light and shade, subtly graded and carefully orchestrated. But the moments of ‘light’, the quiet and calm patches in the storm wracked surface, are further removed from the prosaic and banal context hinted at in that opening whiff of the concrete than they are from the laminated, ear-filling dynamic maxima of the arrangements. Bass, drums and guitars are the bones of the music, and as such it’s quite clearly a species of rock, but when the sound needs filling out it swells with synths, mellotron, accordion and enveloping reverbs that bind the whole together into an inseparable, oceanic wall, like a wave breaking continuously over the listener, or a soft, thick, billowing fog-bank of sound. The melodies that float above this dark, swirling ocean move slowly, long pure tones drifting like rents in the cloud. The songs are all mid tempo, although some are more measured than others, and some, like ‘In The Sand’ or ‘Give Me (What You Need)’, are built on insistent rhythmic hooks. There is a continuity to them though, rather than a sameness, and the heaviest moments, like the roaring crescendo of ‘Silver Light & Blackened Eyes’, feel of a piece with the quietest. Sometimes it slumbers, sometimes it rages, but this is the utterance of one creature, one (hopefully) fictionalised voice.
I say ‘hopefully’, because if it’s not then Marsh is a pretty miserable fellow, and possibly a murderer… The narrators or subjects of his songs are alienated souls, isolated, abandoned and disengaged from those around them. ‘The Ghost Ship’ describes a sociality so fleeting, so shallow that it can barely be distinguished from death, but in the world these characters inhabit, where identity is constructed through the guarding of secrets, it’s probably as good as it gets. Understanding or illumination are experienced as a scourge: in ‘The Seventh Face’ doubt and secrecy are stripped mercilessly away, displaced by a terrible, withering certainty, while in ‘Give Me (What You Need)’ the simple truths on which we hang our identities are identified with blindness. Where there is a glimpse of joy, it is a fleeting thing, a remembered but unattainable ideal, like the summer in ‘Pictures of Ashes’. ‘Last November’ returns to this theme, with its burnt bridges and intractable ill-will. In ‘In The Sand’ the sense of isolation is taken to its conclusion: whether we are to suppose the narrator has literally murdered their lover, or should understand the conceit metaphorically, the effect is the same. Ending is death, the dissipation of an identity that can only be protected by the ultimate preservation of the secrets that constitute it. The dark, looming, disturbed intensity of the music seems to act as an analog for the headlong rush through life, or the ineluctable gravity of the oblivion at its terminus. That there are many more miserable sounding albums out there is mainly thanks to the beauty of Marsh’s melodies; there is a strong sense of the aesthetic to his music, which is life-affirming in and of itself, and serves to leaven the heavy darkness of his lyrics and orchestrations. No easy answers here, then, and no reassuring sense of closure; just a rigorous commitment to the artist’s own sense of the world, as something contingent, shifting, obscure, and without any significance beyond that we bring to it. After that initial burst of amplifier noise there is very little sense of the particular about these songs. This is not observational writing, and such an approach would probably have undermined the sense of alienation that informs it; it is very observant and skilled writing, nevertheless. Sentiment is a hermetic, self-contained soundworld, where existential questions streak past unanswered, like traces in a cloud chamber.