Lost villages, abandoned workings, hidden gardens – things you might find on an unmap. The places in-between, transient, neither one thing or another. Places that you might discover by accident or walk past without knowing what is behind the hedgerow. These have fascinated artists, musicians, and writers for years, being a staple of children’s literature and more recently inspiring albums like Tyneham House and architectural projects such as the Lost Gardens of Heligan. While some places are rediscovered and repurposed, others remain lost – symbols that we are merely temporary stewards of this earth and all too eager to waste resources and abandon projects.
Lassodie, in the Kingdom of Fife in Scotland, is one such place, for once it was an open cast mining village. After the mine closed, the people left – now all that remains are some grassed over mounds and a loch. There are also elements of an incomplete project by architect Charles Jencks – but as stated at the start of Birl Of Unmap, this is no Garden Of Cosmic Speculation. Arguably Jencks’ most personal work, the Garden opened to the public one day a year, but he designed many places that were more accessible. His work on Lassodie (the Fife Earth Project) was never fully realised, so the land has more recently been sold with intention of it becoming an eco-therapy wellness centre. Village, mine, art installation, wellness park – Lassodie is a place in flux.
The uncertain identity of the land provided the spark of inspiration for Birl Of Unmap, an album that layers spoken word pieces within an evocative drone bed. We’ve featured the work of Kinbrae, twin brothers Andy & Mike Truscott, previously and they continue to delve deep into the Scottish landscape here collaborating with writer Clare Archibald. This album is built upon long, slowly shifting tones, underpinning the words of Archibald alongside other voices. There’s the occasional disruption to the drones, such as the busy drumming on “Peer” or the stamping percussion on “Warm Water Burn”. On the whole, this is closer to the work of Richard Skelton, another musician who deals with site-specific compositions, rather than the previous two Kinbrae albums.
What sets Birl apart is the voices, from the declaimed opening statement of Murdo Eason to the soft comfort of Archibald on the closing track. Between those bookends, there’s a reminiscence by Peggy Crawford, and the poem “The Dead Pit” written by Duncan Crawford in 1962, read by Alex Black. Agnieszka Jadowska provides a more recent viewpoint on “Half Seen Truths of the M90”, focusing on the movement of people and aptly named after the motorway that runs past Lassodie. The voices are woven into the musical accompaniment, which shifts and swirls around, its long undulating drones emphasising the weight of the earth and the slowness of change that occurs when humankind is absent.
Kinbrae keep their compositions concise, though, with delicate touches (the percussion as mentioned, plus brass and subtle piano) colouring the eight pieces here. It’s a beautifully arranged work, with full credit to Clare Archibald for allowing space for the contributors but keeping the voices embedded in the music rather than sitting on top. It’s her research and recordings that give Birl Of Unmap a historical heft, the real sense of location and time. It is the sort of album you may dig out in 20 years and wonder what is now occurring in Lassodie – or St Ninian’s, or whatever it will be named. A subtle yet understated work on initial listen, Birl Of Unmap is a powerful meditation on psychogeography, place, and loss. (Jeremy Bye)