Nottingham’s multi-disciplinary Ben McElroy has been coming on strong in recent months, with a pair of short, enchanting EPs followed by an alluring album. We were drawn in by the cover, but once we heard the music, we realized that this was his finest offering to date.
McElroy has been building to this moment for quite some time, and tendrils of the current release can be gleaned in the previous three. While his work as part of the 8-piece Seas of Mirth is raucous and direct, his solo music is quiet and subtle. The first proof of this arrived in 2016’s Bird-Stone (Whitelabrecs), a set of soft pieces for viola and cello, with cheery folk settings set atop melancholic drones. On this album one also encounters McElroy’s skill with titles, the first being “Surely There Are Worse Things”, a possible riff on the saying, “Worse things have happened at sea.” The acoustic guitar seems to jump from the speaker in “The Brightness Surrounds”, offering solace and calm. As in the first track, short pauses seem like the end of tracks until the music restarts, a theme that will reach its fullest extent on 1,000 Sewing Machines. Voices play a part in the center tracks, clear and unadorned.
By its final track, Bird-Stone begins to edge its way toward drone. McElroy picks up the thread at the start of the EP Songs of Iceland (Audio Gourmet). The irony is that McElroy has never been to Iceland; these are aural impressions sparked by photographs and words. “the children danced in the ash and grey” is particularly alluring, a joyful image perhaps sparked by a violent eruption. The title reveals that McElroy knows the Icelandic character. But Ben, you’ve really got to go, because Iceland is amazing and you don’t live that far away. Look what we found online:
That’s just one of the many deals we found. What are you waiting for? Bring the digital files and make some friends! “the boat” is especially sweet, and Icelanders love boats.
If Songs of Iceland is McElroy’s summer set, follow-up to warm their hearts, if not their hands. has its thoughts set on fall. The music starts as slowly as it ended on “those of us left behind”, but picks up midway through “To Warm Their Hearts” as the acoustic guitar emerges from a back room, fully heated and ready to go. “Autumn Later” returns to the cheery vibe of Bird-Stone with airy flute and a hint of the great outdoors. The title “The Cloud Council’s Quarterly Meeting” reminds us of one of the U.K.’s greatest 2017 triumphs, the adding of asperitas and other new formations to the International Cloud Atlas, thanks to Gavin Pretor-Pinney and the Cloud Appreciation Society. The percussion is a light surprise, cymbal taps falling like light rain, becoming a downpour in the final 40-second piece.
This brings us to the current work, which on the surface seems utterly unlike those that have preceded it, but now can be understood in context. All of the elements are in place: strings, guitar, drone, folk and the occasional voice. The difference is in the pacing. Not since the final track of Bird-Stone have the tracks stretched this long, nestling against the quarter-hour mark. McEloy is not in any hurry, and the timing of the release ~ a day after the winter solstice ~ seems purposeful. When the acoustic guitar enters “The First Wave Crashes Into the Mountain”, it does so for less than a minute, accompanied by the sound of a stream, like a memory from a prior work. The music undulates like fields of white.
At 7:43 the track seems over, until the strings leap into action, forging a different sort of path. The ensuing minutes seem more like modern composition than folk. They fade and then return, mocking the normal 45 fade-out; and when they come back, they bring children. The impression is that of a troubadour, a pleasant Pied Piper, save perhaps for the narcotic voice in the foreground.
Skipping the impressionistic title track (which is better suited for the end), we pick up the thread in “It Beckoned Across the Yard”, a much more natural continuation. Threads are important here, as implied by the title and Mark Kuykendall’s unique art, a head filled with thoughts of home. Threads are woven between releases and tracks, between music and landscape, between imagination and art. The artist waits until five minutes have passed in the ten-minute track to introduce the main melodies, at home in the song; listeners will feel the same way.
Finally McElroy comes full circle, revisiting the political tinges of Bird-Stone in the title “Rather Blue, Then Red”, yet allowing his readers to draw their own conclusions. Perhaps he is simply extolling the virtues of winter blue; this is after all a blue album, as comforting as the powder-blue landscape that he walks across in the finale as the church bells toll their solemn greeting. (Richard Allen)