In recent months, A Year in the Country has provided rich audio explorations in the form of The Quietened Bunker, The Quietened Village, The Forest / The Wald and now The Restless Field. These efforts include the contributions of various artists, but each focuses on a single subject. The latest focus is “the land as a place of conflict and protest as well as beauty and escape”. Each release also features a mixture of pastoral styles particularly suited to the U.K.; one never confuses the geographical source. This means a blend of politeness, whimsy and danger, a difficult trick to carry off, but done well here. While previous installments have included vocal tracks, the instrumental topography of the current set makes it one of the label’s finest to date. To blurred ears, the set may even seem the work of a single artist, so smooth is the sequencing. As usual, the project is available in two different editions, Dawn and Night: an added bonus to fans of physical formats. We recommend the box set for its bonus badges and booklet.
From the very start, the listener gets the feeling that there’s something bigger going on here than the music. Field Lines Cartographer makes a dramatic entrance with “Ghosts of Blood and Iron”, as well they should, considering the role of land in battle. One imagines the advancing troops, the cannons, the muck, the blood, and mid-track, the sense of tinnitus as a steady buzz envelops the speakers. War is hell, and then everything sinks into the land: bodies, materials, memories. This is the dark side of the land, continuing in Vic Mars’ “Mortimer’s Cross”, whose church bells, fifes and field recordings of fire reference the famous battle of 1461, in which a parhelion was said to reflect the Holy Trinity and auger victory. The Restless Field continues to cover these conflicts through Polyphores’ “Graveney Marsh”, which refers to the last battle fought on British soil, against a quartet of German aviators brought down by Spitfires (1940). One can hear the rotors throughout the track, a fitting echo.
Other skirmishes may lack armies, but still unfold: the lamentable 1985 Battle of the Beanfield, in which police halted a group of new agers who tried to assemble at Stonehenge (appropriately soundtracked by Assembled Minds, calling on 1980s synths to reflect the era) and the British Miners’ Strike of a year before. The most recent conflict here is one of words, ironically exchanged over the oldest of sites: the Rotherwas Serpent Mound, a Bronze Age excavation that was “buried for its own preservation” beneath a modern bypass only a decade ago. Sproatly Smith provides a suitable elegy, calling on ancient intonations to imply something lost, lying just outside the reach of comprehension. Do we care what the land has seen?
To balance these dark tales, the collection also contains some more pastoral pieces, the most restful being Grey Frequency’s “Agrarian Lament”. Birds sing overhead while light drones dance on the grain below. Endurance extends the peaceful feeling with “Under the Cherry Trees”, a perfect track for this time of year, an invitation to lie on the earth and to gaze upward, thankful for the land below no matter what its history. When David Colohan closes the album with “Beyond Jack’s Gate”, it’s a reminder that despite the headlines, we are now living in history’s most peaceful time: a rare break during which we might walk the land at our leisure, basking in its impassive ability to drink in the rain and blood and continue to blossom. (Richard Allen)