In 2003 Stephen Cracknell first brought The Memory Band blinking into the sunlight. His plan to consolidate contributions from acoustic musicians with traditional musical forms and sampling techniques, bore fruit in the form of early EP releases and an eponymous debut album in 2004. Quickly adorned with various folk / electronic / psychedelic tags, the album demonstrated a deep love of landscape and place, an intuitive feeling for space and a masterful touch with the gentle art of music that brought them a strong festival following. The band grew into a more coherent unit over time and two further explorations of mood, improvisation and tradition, Apron Strings and Oh My Days (FRUK review), followed. These later releases widened the band’s perspective; with song, cover versions and programming playing a more significant role.
With the release of their fourth album, On The Chalk (Our Navigation of the Line of the Downs), The Memory Band have returned to the more gentle and less definable sound and appealing concepts that endeared them to early audiences. And there is a definable concept – The Harrow Way, the western section of an ancient walkway, is explored in sound, speech and song.. a form of druidcal road trip, if you like, as Cracknell journeys through southern England’s ancient mysteries.
In the opening The Wearing of the Horns (Weyhill On My Mind), melody and song, although present, take second place to loops, pastoral samples and meditative echoes. I See Cuckoo brings the album onto a more standard melodic footing as piano-led jazz sentiments, abundant throughout the album, support the peppering of sampled sounds and blend inexplicably (and effectively) with mediaeval sounding woodwind.
The next stage of the journey, When I Was On Horseback, is almost dark with its quietly invocative druidic drones, but thanks to the light jazz melody and percussion is more suggestive of a merry rite. Follow The Sarsen Stones is less complicated by loops and samples but still manages to revel in its electronic atmospheres. The introduction of some light brass and more complex percussion arrangements helps the sound grow and widen as the album progresses. On Dancing Hill succeeds in taking the listener on a short piano and flute induced sunlit stroll
What Blood Is This seems almost a turning point. The samples have faded, melody comes more to the fore, and piano chords are beginning (just beginning) to take on a darker, cloudier tone. The memories related in the spoken words are all the more compelling for their clarity, in contrast with the earlier vocal samples. Along the Sunken Lanes places a heavier reliance on strings, electric and acoustic, with a jaunty summer interlude before the darker As I Walked Over Salisbury Plain brings a more melancholic air, and The Highest Song in the Sky – a bitter-sweet tribute to angler Chris Yates.
Pounding percussion, worried invocations and sinister strings further darken the skies in Facing the Granite Country, before Where the River Meets the Sea brings the journey to a majestic conclusion; Cracknell’s fascination for film scores more apparent than ever as brass, strings and vocal samples build anthemically and sweep images across the mental vision before fading to birdsong and running water.
In On The Chalk metaphors abound, ancient links between physical and spiritual journeys are explored along with perceptions of landscapes and their populations. Don’t fall into the mistake of assuming this album is clichéd – Stonehenge, ancient routes and pastoral idylls may be familiar themes but The Memory Band don’t just discover these themes; they acknowledge their importance in a contemporary setting, and present their discoveries with more appeal, sincerity and originality than many a self-appointed guardian of tradition.
Review by: Neil McFadyen
To mark the release of the album on May 22nd Stephen Cracknell walked for three days from Farnham to Stonehenge. The route followed the “lost” section of The Harrow Way as detailed by H.W. Timperley and Edith Brill in their book “Ancient Trackways Of Wessex” published in 1965. You can enjoy a visual record of the journey here: