The Magnetic North [Erland Cooper (vocals & bass, Hannah Peel (vocals, keyboards & musical-boxes) & Simon Tong (vocals & guitar)]
With its centuries-old tradition of legend and folklore, the Orkney Islands might seem a gift for creative artists everywhere – yet its artistic potential has been relatively underexplored in musical, as opposed to literary, terms (the legacy of Sir Peter Maxwell Davies notwithstanding); thus making An Orkney Symphony as welcome, and as intriguing, as it is unexpected.
Taking its name from John Gunn’s 1932 guide book, The Magnetic North brings together the talents of Stromness-born songwriter Erland Cooper (whose band Erland and the Carnival has achieved cult status during recent years), singer and multi-instrumentalist Hannah Peel (who made a notable solo debut with her album Broken Wave last year), and guitarist Simon Tong (whose musicianship added much to the appeal of Damon Albarn’s The Good, The Bad and The Queen) in an outfit to which the term ‘progressive folk’ hardly does justice to music that is not afraid to rock out when necessary, while preserving the core of evocative introspection which is synonymous with the aura and landscape of these islands.
The dozen numbers make for an eventful overview of Orcadian culture. ‘Stromness’ sets the scene with its echoing ships’ sirens and breathy vocalise, articulated by the plaintive singing and cumulative textures in ‘Bay of Skaill’, before ‘Hi Life’ sounds a more visceral note with its ominous evocation of matters seemingly poised just out of reach. ‘Betty Corrigall’ is an eloquent tribute to an 18th-century teenager on the isle of Hoy who, supposedly impregnated by a passing sailor, chose suicide after being ostracized by her community and was buried in un-consecrated ground; a contrast to the whimsy of ‘Warbeth’ with its cryptic lyrics and deft use of drone patterns – followed by ‘Rackwick’ which depicts the remote bay of that name in gently alluring terms. ‘The Old Man of Hoy’ evokes the islands’ most spectacular landmark in surprisingly (yet persuasively) playful and wistful terms, then ‘Nethertons Teeth’ suffuses memory and speculation to bewitching effect, while ‘Ward Hill’ treats an almost literal account of climbing the islands’ highest peak in a pointedly oblique manner. ‘The Black Craig’ is the one wordless number, though its increasingly dense textures more than offset any literal component, then ‘Orphir’ presents an (oddly?) downbeat evocation of the Norse settlement, before ‘Yesnaby’ rounds off proceedings in music which unerringly encapsulates the desolate beauty and unlikely sanctuary of that place.
Proceeded by a half-hour ‘making of’ film, Hunting for Remoteness, which set the scene in understated though insightful terms (and hopefully providing a useful fillip for Orkney tourism), the performance brought in a drummer, trombone duo and string quartet to fill out the textures of a band whose three members were arrayed across the front of the platform – with Cooper’s folk-inflected vocals and punchy bass-playing to the left, Tong’s always inventive guitar work to the right and, at the centre, Peel’s tremulous vocals (a little redolent of Mazzy Star at its most ethereal) and fluid keyboard-playing which, together with her trademark musical-box contributions, set the seal on the band’s arresting music. Not for the first time, the close and unyielding acoustic of the Purcell Room did its best to rob the performance of its atmospheric depth (perhaps Hall Two of King’s Place might have provided a more sympathetic setting in this respect), but this was a relative failing in a presentation that otherwise amply conveyed the mesmeric qualities of these songs to the near-capacity house.
Those who missed this event, and are unable to make any other of the band’s select number of gigs, should certainly invest in the album An Orkney Symphony (Full Time Hobby FTH139CDB) which captures in full measure the variety and unpredictability of music as singular and intangible, yet also as affecting as the environment that inspired it.

 

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