Having resided on the fringes of the experimental music scene for the past three years or so, I have time and again been utterly fascinated by the people involved in it; their passion for music and nothing else, their willingness to collaborate and bring the best out of each other, promoting one another’s music with almost no concern for the material or the egotistical. A beautiful scene to be even marginally acquainted with and this shines through impeccably on Black Elk’s debut.
Born out of the collective efforts of Ian Hawgood, Tim Martin (aka Maps & Diagrams), Danny Norbury and Clem Leek, four of the most active artists in recent years, Sparks is an album that brings out the best of each artist. Every artist’s input can be easily recognized yet they all blend so well together to provide a thoroughly engaging album from start to finish. A work of art that transcends the confines time and space, one that continually amazes, bedazzles and inspires on each listen. One might attribute this to the myriad hidden treasures that one has to unearth in each track or the fact that beauty, honest and true, can never get old, but the one thing that can be said for sure is that this is one of those very rare albums that extends far beyond one’s expectations of a certain kind of music and into the realm of the truly sublime.
Perhaps it is the contrast between what’s going on in the foreground and in each track’s background that makes it as enthralling as it is; the ever changing landscapes underneath each piano or guitar melody. The way that traces of noise find their way through the spaces between the notes and change one’s perception of what’s going on completely. Melodies highlight emotions, noises and field recordings project constant motion. Extend that to our daily lives and one can start to fathom the source of these sparks; watching the most loving of greetings in an airport becomes a highlight against a backdrop of hundreds of motions, time freezes for a few yet life goes on for everyone else in the surroundings and this is what constantly happens throughout the album. It is a constant appreciation of the delightful against a backdrop of the bleak, the little things that make everything else bearable in a way.
The main piano theme connecting the tracks together is intelligently placed over varying backdrops of mixed static, processed recordings and distant voices, to each time create an altogether different experience. Whereas the title track invokes images of glaciers and starry skies, “The Blackest Sky” sees these pure white glaciers turning to ashes and stars are slowly switched off one at a time to perfectly capture the track’s title. Danny Norbury’s cello shines in penultimate track “Aphotic Widow” and creates a wondrous atmosphere for the album to bid its listener its final farewell. Then it all comes to a close, as wonderfully as it had started, everything said and done in magnificent fashion.
Praise must also be given to Lawrence English’s mastering efforts as it binds everything together so seamlessly and in manner that magnifies all the right sounds in the right places without allowing any element to outshine the other. If Black Elk weren’t to collaborate on anything else ever again, which isn’t the case since they’re releasing the follow up Anchor next November, Sparks would’ve sufficed as an everlasting testament to these musician’s abilities as a collective. Easily one this year’s of the best albums to date. (Mohammed Ashraf)