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Spectralate – Unit 21

Turquoise Coal

Spectralate - Unit 21Alan Holmes, one half of Spectralate and doyen of the Welsh alternative scene — which includes being part of the wonderful Ectogram — has been beavering away on those fringes for the best part of thirty years under a wide variety of different names and in different styles.

I remember with a great deal of affection the records that Ectogram released on Ochre, drifting soundscapes of various hues as well as the fantastic Serpents album. Anyway, for the last four years or so, he and his fellow multi-instrumentalist Annie Pye have been trading under the Spectralate name, releasing albums of psychedelic folk-influenced ramshackle sweetness involving all manner of instruments and sounds. They even produced an album of Leonard Cohen covers, all done in their inimitable style.

Unit 21 finds them in darker, more reflective mood, as the spectre of mortality and the frustrations inherent in modern life raise their heads in the subject matter. Sadly, Alan’s old friend and musical sparring partner Maeyc Hewitt  passed away recently and this is reflected in some of the lyrics, particularly “Zigzag As Lightning” which also namechecks the local record shop of their youth and the title of this album. The album cover art depicts the demolition of the shop and that is a resonant image. Your local record shop, the one that you frequented whilst growing up, particularly in a small town, does a lot to influence the outlook of a young music loving person, and to see that reduced to rubble is almost like the death of youth. I remember ours being converted to a hairdresser and something inside just withers a little.

With that in mind, the album is not a slough of despond by any stretch, but a lot of the songs are written around acoustic guitar and cello, and that can’t help but cast things in a melancholic mood. What sets the songs apart are the vibrant choice of chord progressions that at times bring to mind Pram and the extraordinary relationship that the voices of Annie and Alan have. The best way to describe it is if Annie’s voice is a balloon, bobbing about in a breeze, drifting here and there slightly out of control, then Alan’s is the weight that prevents the balloon from floating off. His is a half-spoken almost baritone that shadows Annie, providing all important shade. Opener “Barmecide” is a prefect example of this, moving slowly and a little uneasily, gorgeous use of viola tugging at the heartstrings and a sprinkling of spacedust for added texture.

Some of the songs do lean in a folk direction at times, “Parthian Shot” being a good example, but they can only stick to folk for a little while and then their off-kilter wilfulness takes over and the songs veer in a more random direction. There is some lovely guitar interplay with a piano following in the background, peeping over the guitars’ shoulders. Interestingly, when Alan takes sole vocal duties, he brings to mind David Tibet. There is that well-enunciated use of clever and complicated lyrical imagery on “Viridescent” that draws the listener in to the unfolding poetry, all taking place over the backdrop of gauzy ’60s influenced psychedelia. There is a touch of country on penultimate track “Who Will Bell The Cat?”, but the guitar is intertwined with viola and simple strings lending an ethereal air. The vocals are hushed and echo-y and what sounds like a reverbed washboard is drifting in the background along with curls of smoke.

The use of strings across Unit 21 gives a chamber kind of vibe, but the overall impression is the absolute labour of love that these two have created. Between them they are playing guitar, bass, drums, piano, trombone, trumpet, viola, cello and various archaic keyboard devices, but nothing is cluttered. There is space for all the ingredients. The central track. “Zigzag For Lightning”, a paean to Maeyc and also to lost youth, has a really pretty guitar and whistle intro, but an injection of organ partway through really gives some dynamism. The whistling somehow humanises the track, though and with Annie’s voice low and thoughtful, they do know how to provoke a reaction.

The essence of the album, along with “Zigzag”, is tied up in final track “Saudade”, that Portuguese concept of love for something gone but not forgotten. This emotion runs throughout the album, but  is reflected here particularly. Annie intones “In this empty space, I ask that  you’ll be fine”, which later turns into “In this crowded space, I know that you’ll be fine” in a manner that brings to mind Alison Shaw from Cranes. The guitar and strings give an uplifting air that is a lovely counterpoint to the bitter-sweet lyrics. It is a fine track to end an album on and I think the LP itself is sequenced perfectly; a true journey of heart stirring images that do the pair proud. I hope that the next outing is not borne of such circumstances and look forward to it greatly.

-Mr Olivetti-

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