Just once in a while an album comes along that takes you to places you hadn’t realise existed. Arlet’s Clearing did this, and much more, for me. Arlet’s music achieves this by bringing together elements of folk, jazz and classical chamber music performed on an eclectic range of instruments. I’m old enough to have, several times, lived through periods when ‘fusion’ has been the buzzword in various musical genres. The folk world has certainly not been immune, Afro-Celts and Edward II spring to mind as examples of bands that very specifically set out to explore the crossover between distinct musical styles. Others have taken a more gradual approach, 30 years ago Brass Monkey showed that one doesn’t necessarily have to consciously merge styles, simply adding some distinctly non-folk instruments will do the trick. The test of success, though, remains the same; the listener shouldn’t be aware of the joins. Arlet’s music treads a path that has elements of both these approaches and it most certainly passes the ‘joins’ test.
Arlet have been described as “an organic collective” but acknowledged leader, Aidan Shepherd, points out that for the last two years the line up has remained stable and that has encouraged the recent burst of recording, first a self-titled EP in January 2013 and now a full length album. This stable line up comprises Aidan, accordion and principal composer; Rosie Holden, violin; Ben Insall, guitar; Owen Hewson, clarinet and Thom Harmsworth, euphonium. On all the tracks of Clearing, they are joined by James Gow, double bass and Andy Renshaw, percussion, whilst on specific tracks, Nick Walters adds trumpet and Raven Bush mandolin. This array of musicians brings together backgrounds in traditional and contemporary folk, jazz, classical and contemporary ‘serious’ music and brass bands, with an occasional foray into prog rock.
And, yes, it’s easy to identify all of these influences in the music but the great pleasure on offer comes not from playing a game of ‘spot the influence’ but from revelling in the seamless interplay between them. A typical track has passages with a distinctly folk inspired melody picked out on accordion backed by a guitar rhythm; the violin picks up parts of the melody, soon adding phrases of its own, and is joined in similar vein by clarinet and euphonium. Almost before you realise, the band is in full chamber music mode with phrases being passed from instrument to instrument, the composition developing innumerable layers. You may then start to hear, in the lower registers of the accordion perhaps, a new rhythm emerge, a jazz rhythm and the piece moves into a new phase. But here I am doing exactly what I said not to do! This is music to appreciate in its entirety, relax, let the sound carry your thoughts with it and then its subtle changes of pace and style will creep in, each one bringing a delightful surprise.
Aidan has composed all but two short sections of the music on Clearing but he’s reported as saying that the band is taking tentative steps into writing music collectively. This may well take them in new and even more adventurous directions, but, for now, this is an album I can envisage listening to for a long time to come, as the man may have said, ‘Arlet’s album is for life, not just for Christmas’.
Review by: Johnny Whalley
Oct 29 – In League With Robots @ The Albany (240 Great Portland Street, London)
Nov 01 – Sladers Yard, Dorset
Nov 09 – Revelation St Marys, Ashford (supporting the Dylan Project). (Trio only)
Released on Smugglers Records.