More of a tangled briar than a family tree, the lineage of Bastard Mountain is a complex affair. Members of Meursault, Sparrow & The Workshop, Eagleowl, Broken Records and James Yorkston’s Athletes have joined forces to create what might just be the world’s first democratic drone-folk supergroup. Some of the songs are new, others are re-treads of old material. Some are sung by the writer, others are given to collaborators. There is a cover of a song over forty years old and a new instrumental by a first-time composer. Songwriting credits are scattered about like dandelion seeds; genres are straddled or hopped over like farmyard gates.
It sounds like it should be messy and confusing. Thankfully, it is neither of those things. Perhaps helped by the fact that each individual performer is affiliated in some loose way with the fertile Edinburgh music scene, the overall sound on Farewell, Bastard Mountain is remarkably focussed.
Meadow Ghosts kicks off with discordant violin scrapes and a panoramic string section. Composed by Eagleowl’s Rob St John, lead vocals are shared by Chicago-raised Jill O’Sullivan of Sparrow & The Workshop, whose contribution turns the song into an oneiric swathe of gothic Americana. It drifts with glacial certainty into the wonderfully named instrumental Drone Armatrading, in which a building string refrain breaks in to a surprising, light-textured acoustic guitar motif, which in turn gives way to spectral murmurs and hums. It marks Rory Sutherland’s debut as a songwriter, but sounds as mature and accomplished as anything else here.
Jill O’Sullivan’s offerings are perhaps the simplest, at least on the surface. But her contribution should not be overlooked – the whole album has a geographically elusive quality that is in part a product of her transatlantic upbringing. Sparrow song Old Habits is given an old-timey goth-country makeover. The subtle shifts in the pace of the guitar in Swam Like Sharks reveal hidden depths, while the distortion that creeps up on the song is pitched somewhere between the heavier side of Steeleye Span and the pre-grunge guitar workouts of Crazy Horse. And it is not just in her own songs that O’Sullivan has a transformative effect. On Neil Pennycook’s The Mill her backing vocals help create a sound that evokes US counterparts like Bon Iver and The Acorn.
If there is a single guiding light in terms of this record’s conception it is Meursault’s Pennycook – he has experience of this sort of thing, having been involved in a similar gathering of like-minded artists for 2009’s Cold Seeds project. But whereas Cold Seeds was always just a one-off recording venture, Pennycook has admitted in interviews that the set-up of Bastard Mountain feels more cohesive, more like an actual touring band. This is reflected in the lucidity of the album’s musical message. An old Meursault song like Pissing On Bonfires (perked up by echoey and unexpected backing vocals, as if it were recorded in a vast chamber with hidden corners) sits perfectly alongside a slow, dark take on Something On Your Mind, a song made famous by Karen Dalton, or the lengthy, serpentine Palisade, an impressive Rob St John composition.
Bastard Mountain is far more than a sampler of Edinburgh’s impressive musical talents. Residing firmly in the unexplored territory between Brit folk, alt-country and droning experimentalism, it is proof that a confluence of musical minds with a collaborative and improvisational approach can create something that transcends the sum of its parts.
Review by: Thomas Blake
Released 12th May 2014 via Song, By Toad Records