Elma Orkestra & Ryan Vail ~ Borders

We’ve already reviewed a wealth of Brexit-related albums this year, from The Matthew Herbert Big Band’s The State Between Us to Richard Luke’s Glass Island to Chris Weeks’ Borders to Richard Skelton’s wider-themed Border Ballads.  Each of these has a distinctive tone, ranging from angry to encouraging; and each uses a different tonal palette.  Now they are joined by Elma Orkestra & Ryan Vail‘s audio-visual extravaganza, also called Borders.  At the time these albums were recorded, Brexit was due to occur on March 29; twice-delayed, the event is now scheduled for Halloween ~ as John Oliver quipped, “as if Halloween weren’t scary enough.”  In all these releases (as well as in others we’ve heard across various genres), we have yet to hear a pro-Brexit album, or for that matter, a pro-Trump album, the United States involved in its own manufactured border “crisis.”  This tells us much about the artistic community, or at the very least, the slice of the community with which we interact; we’re pretty much all on the same page.

Intentionally or ironically, Borders also straddles a border between genres: electronic and modern composition.  The latter association inspires comparison to Glass Island, while the former places it nearer The State Between Us.. But again, the album carves out its own sonic niche.  Watching the video for “Colours,” one is struck by the imagery of forest nestled against cleared land, but also of the roads that seem to indicate boundaries.  Moya (Maire) Brennan is a welcome guest, her voice as alluring as it was when she sang with Clannad.  Her participation lends the project a sense of history, as well as an emotional weight.  By the end of the video, all lines are blurred: a forest is a forest, after all, even if we draw a line through it.  This idea echoes that of Skelton, whose love is the land and whose regret is our failure to respect it.  While Skelton has resided in different countries, looking back on one while living in another, Vail and Orkestra (Eoin O’Callaghan) reside on different sides of the Derry / Londonderry border, the very name disputed by different political parties.  And while Brexit is already raising grave concerns about a resurgence of Irish enmity, the duo seeks to highlight “the collaborative spirit” in a world of division, a broader theme with a universal appeal.


The art (as well as the teaser video) portrays the border between land and sea: a pair of seeming opposites that rely on each other as yin and yang.  In the same way, genres make peace on Borders while composers lead by example, working with each other in the service of a higher cause.  The music is warm-hued, with rounded edges, the best example of this blended pairing since Floex and Tom Hodge’s project of last year.  Dance tracks are balanced by quiet stormers such as “Stay,” nestled at the album’s center, a plaintive plea.  Dublin spoken word poet Stephen James Smith contributes the album’s first foreshadowing, and then its heartbreak.  “Am I Sad” arrives early and seems like a club track until it breaks down to piano and strings.  Smith asks, “Am I sad? Am I angry? Yes. Very angry.”

This statement gives the album its forward propulsion, which finds culmination five tracks later in “My Island.”  This seemingly restrained piece arrives in the shadow of the hard-edged “Droves,” producing a palpable contrast.  Once again we hear the sea, although the reason we hear the sea is because it laps against the shore.  “This community is Irish and British,” Smith sadly intones, “which can be hard to distinguish.”  Stripping himself emotionally bare, the poet lists focal points in history, but declares in breaking voice, “We just want to live and love on this land with you.”  And then the sea takes over.

One day, the sea may consume us all.  Our failure to cooperate may plunge us back into the desolation of our genesis.  In the words of W.H. Auden, “We must love one another or die.”  (Richard Allen)

Available here

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