“Sometimes God’s ways are mysterious. Sometimes He reveals them bit by bit over long periods of time” – this is a quote from the novel The Salt Garden by Cindy Martinusen Coloma which has no connection to this EP by Fovea Hex beyond the shared title (thanks Google!). The quote however does seem apt – the “bit by bit over long periods of time” is a pretty accurate description for Fovea Hex’s release schedule which is as unhurried as their individual songs are. And the ways of this band are certainly mysterious – a collective of musicians centred around Clodagh Simonds who recorded the astonishing Swaddling Songs with Mellow Candle in 1972 and then kept a low profile for some thirty years after.
Since returning to releasing music as Fovea Hex, Simonds has a near-perfect track record: one album in 2011 (Home Is Where We Used To Sing) followed by a sequence of one-off tracks and extended plays – first the Neither Speak Nor Remain Silent trilogy, and now The Salt Garden, with scarcely a bad moment between them. It is hard to pick comparable artists to this music – Dead Can Dance are the closest I can offer – in the same way that Swaddling Songs was something of an outlier during the bloom of folk-rock in the early 1970s. Simonds retains Mellow Candle’s ear-catching approach of two vocalists together – then, she sang with Alison Williams, now it is sometimes Laura Sheeran, other times multi-tracked – but she has moved away from folk-rock towards a more impressionistic ambience.
This is music that reveals itself slowly, although there are little hooks to catch the ear – the percussive build on the opener “You Were There” – that lure you back for repeated listens. It perhaps helps that Fovea Hex have stuck with the EP format, with each installment around 20 minutes; three songs followed by an ambient piece is the pattern for The Salt Garden releases. An album of such treasures might overwhelm; this approach encourages space to think about the music and gives us time to listen again.
The second track “Chained” is most fitting of their Bandcamp tag ‘deep song’, with a lyric that hints of the narrative story-song that you expect from the folk tradition, with suitably violent imagery (‘They took me down to the waterfall and they threw me in’) but is abstract enough for us to fill in the gaps ourselves. The ebb and flow of the atmospheric backing provides the power underneath the restrained vocals – possibly the key folky element here; there aren’t any histrionics in the delivery no matter what is happening in the lyrics.
If you are on the fence about Fovea Hex – ambient folk? vocals?? you might be thinking – then the third of four tracks here is the one to change your mind featuring as it does the very pleasing sound of the Brian Eno choir. Eno has been a fan and collaborator for a while now but here he contributes his multi-layered vocals on “All Those Signs” which itself is one of the more immediate songs in the Fovea Hex canon. The combination of Simonds and Eno on the chorus ‘Long may we cheer and sing! Long may our floodlights shine!’ is an unexpectedly moving moment, a rare burst of joy and optimism for these uncertain times. (Jeremy Bye)
I was fortunate enough to see Fovea Hex live last year at the Tusk Festival – you can watch the whole set below: