A cleansing release after festive indulgence, Four Stones sidles up to your consciousness with a single plucked note that waits patiently – 45 seconds in fact – for ingress. When “The Blood of St John” starts proper, the pace picks up only marginally. There are flourishes, then silences. You have opened the door to something vast and sparse, but faintly radiating warmth.
Now on his third LP, UK-based Dean McPhee is a devotee of clean electric guitar. Bar occasional use of a kick pedal, with guitar alone does he create oases of vacuous soundscapes decorated by floral fingerpicking. Formed of five tracks both new and old, Four Stones is a live album of sorts – single takes, no overdubs – with live looping that builds up the terrain. Its use of looping is discreet across most of the tracks, though – limited to rhythmic string tapping or chordal ambience. The exception is the entirely refrain-driven “Danse Macabre”, whose sedimentary layers rise and fall like sand dunes.
Four Stones imparts a tale of solitary wanderings. Don’t confuse this with lonely wanderings; though our wayfarer seems to lack direction, he is at peace with his own company, his own languid pace. This pace is intrinsic to the record’s mood, and McPhee sets his scene upfront, the first two tracks incorporating space caressed with reverb and tremolo to lovely effect. The descending scale that slowly repeats halfway through “The Devil’s Knell” echoes until it dissipates, like ripples on otherwise still waters. When McPhee raises the tempo a touch, tranquility yet remains. Buoyed by its 3/4 time signature, “Rule of Threes” bobs along tidal currents that never threaten to intensify. As we approach its close, a jazz chord of unexpected colour spills aboard, casting doubt over this assumption – but only momently; what may have signalled trouble has quickly passed.
The five-track LP saves its longest – and best – for last. The panoramic “Four Stones” makes the other tracks appear like standard 3:2 photographs, as the landscape before us is afforded space to evolve. Again our traveller’s pace slows to a crawl, but now a rhythmic root note provides sustenance, and a kick pedal, momentum. This rhythm persists in several forms throughout the track. The traveller‘s momentum has become purpose.
As we proceed to the track’s third act, some quicker chord changes imbue it with the most radiant colours of this otherwise earthy set. Four Stones may start with hesitation, but by its close, it resonates with resolve. It’s the start of a new year, and adventure awaits. (Chris Redfearn-Murray)