Arch Garrison is the acoustic vehicle of North Sea Radio Orchestra mainstays Craig Fortnam and James Larcombe. Their latest album I Will Be A Pilgrim sees songwriter and composer Fortnam examine his love for the countryside of southern England, aided by his trusty nylon string guitar and Larcombe’s piano and organ.
From the off it is apparent that Fortnam’s engagement with his chosen landscape –and with his chosen musical form – runs deeper than your average folky pastoralia. There are complex relationships at work on this otherwise simple collection of songs – most notably those between man, environment and the passing of time. Opener Where The Green Lane Runs, for example, makes reference to Captain Oates, hinting at hostility and the need for self-sacrifice in a seemingly hospitable world.
Exquisite and surprisingly complex guitar playing is always to the fore. Everything All is propelled along by a fleet-fingered motif that owes much to both classical Spanish and African musical traditions. Two linked instrumentals, Vamp 1 and Vamp 2, further emphasise the influence of African guitar music, and serve to remind us that ‘folk’ music, even a kind of folk music that is inextricably linked to a certain landscape or locality, can and should be an open and inclusive form.
But I Will Be A Pilgrim is not just about the guitar. The synths that chime with the birdsong at the end of The Oldest Road – a song about the ancient Ridgeway path – are anything but incongruous. Like much of the record it serves as a lesson that ancient landscapes exist alongside, rather than separate from, the technological advances of the modern world.
In terms of overall sound Arch Garrison veer close to a kind of baroque chamber-folk located somewhere between the late-60s Nick Drake/Donovan-inspired boom and the softer end of Robyn Hitchcock’s musical spectrum. But to their credit they never settle on one sonic idea for too long. The beginning of the title track has an almost progressive feel to it, and indeed much of the album has a kind of Canterbury prog atmosphere (minus the vast, ridiculous layers and twenty-minute songs of course), all the more so because Fortnam’s voice carries a passing resemblance to Robert Wyatt’s. But despite being hard to pin down I Will Be A Pilgrim has a pleasingly focussed reflexivity, summed up in songs like Other People, which begins with an impressive flourish of guitar before settling down into a meditation on passivity. It is a clever, understated delight.
Review by: Thomas Blake
live at The Brunswick, Hove. 9/2/14
Release date: May 19th via The Household Mark (Craig’s own label)