It’s funny how this job stacks up sometimes. No sooner have I finished praising something for its elegant economy and in the process remarking on the smallness of the world, when that world, or at least the musical part of it, is tilted upside down on its access and sent it pin-balling around the stars. The cause of this cosmic realignment is the arrival of the Moulettes Constellations, an album so full of ideas, wit and imagination that it seems to have grabbed a strand of the very fabric of creation itself and crocheted an alternate universe of the most intricate lacework. As I sit pen poised listening, I end up with blank page, which is somehow appropriate if unhelpful, so I’m forced to press play again and let the flippers send me back around the bumpers for another spin. As the digit counters ramp up everything suddenly starts to make sense and pinging around the solar system it strikes me that planet earth may well be blue, but from up here it’s one hell of a view.
So, I may be getting lost somewhere between Tommy and Major Tom with that introduction, but Constellations is one hell of a record and one that defies easy comparison. Despite not having any easy reference points and at times boasting an almost algebraic complexity, it’s also playful, fun and immensely enjoyable to listen to. The sound is huge at times, almost symphonic, borrowing from several different musical styles at once, yet full of intimate detail and the kind of melodic invention, that once it has you will keep you hooked to infinity and beyond.
Looking at their history so far, the comings and goings in camp Moulettes make for quite a story in their own right. One thing has remained constant, however, as the band has consistently won great reviews for their bold adventurous sound, both as a live act and for their two previous albums and three EPs, with lots of genre bending superlatives lashed around. They’ve been a fairly regular feature on these pages and in an interview back in 2010, Ruth told us, “Hannah normally brings new tunes and lyrics to the table and we’ll then all play a part in arranging it, pad it out, maybe add a few bits…that’s maybe why it all sounds a little bit mad…because we’re all adding bits, but it works!” Ollie goes further explaining, “It’s about listening to each other and not coming with a preset formula.”
The core trio of Hannah Miller (Songwriter, Vocals, Cello, Guitar), Ruth Skipper (Vocals, Bassoon, Auto-harp), and Oliver Austin (Drums, Guitar, vocals), were joined on the last album by Jim Mortimore, a bassist and guitarist who also doubles as the musical director of the legendary Arthur Brown’s band. The current Moulettes line up also includes, Jim Eliza Jaye (Electric guitar, synth, vocals) and Emma Gatrill (Harp, bass clarinet, synth, percussion, vocals).
Arthur Brown is one of numerous guests in a list that also includes, another legendary figure in bass man Herbie Flowers and Moulettes contemporaries Blaine Harrison (Mystery Jets), The Unthanks and Emma Richardson (Band Of Skulls). Brighton dub troubadour Faye Houston and dub-step producer Mike Dennis (Dface) complete a supporting cast that adds considerably to the musical scope, further enabling The Moulettes in their continued quest to blend styles and experiment with sound in a way that has been a hallmark so far. Joe Gibb who co-produced the last album, The Bear’s Revenge, is also back alongside Ollie to share another credit here.
If you are already a Mouettes fan, you’ll have some idea of what to expect, although even you will find Constellations surprising. Sure, their genre bending is still very much the calling card, with a heavy dose of prog-rock and psychedelic influence, Hannah is quoted on the website saying, “People can listen to Moulettes and hear Shostakovich, Miles Davis, Pentangle, Pink Floyd, Bjork and Skrillex. That is where we’ve all come from…everyone shares in over 80 years of recorded music history.” It’s a bold claim and there are some big names there, which both you and I could add to, depending on our own points of reference, but this is a big and bold sound to match. Just as The Bears’s Revenge built on the sound of their debut, however, this is another quantum leap on again.
The opening tack, Glorious Year, seems brimful of optimism and possibility. An opening string and vocal motif, a driving surge of acoustic guitar and thump of drums get us up and running. But it’s the voices, the layering of the different melodies and the careful enunciation of the words that’s special, with the main tune having something of the orient about it, a note I keep making. It’s almost as if they have shifted through Klezmer and Balkan influences and cast further east, on a steady diet of Vietnamese pop a la Dengue Fever, or it could just be the way I’m hearing it. The key word there though is careful, as for all of its dramatic scale, this seems so precise and tightly scripted, everything is in it’s place, adding detail, hooks and filigree in just the right amounts with pinpoint precision.
Things move on at pace as the title track rattles off with a percussive start and skittering drum beat. Even on headphones there are some powerful subsonics and a killer bass line. Again it’s the vocal arrangement that is unique, the complexity of interweaving melody and counter melody and again that articulation, which somehow prevents the rapid firing words collapsing in on themselves. The upbeat sound has Zappa-esque flurries of marimba and a modicum of something a little more urban too.
Lady Vengeance, as the title suggests, naturally sees a change of mood, although it retains the huge sound stage and intricacy of arrangement. It also features Arthur Brown, who despite his senior-psychedelic-citizen status, still possesses a powerful, distinctive voice, which is put to dramatic use. In fact legion voices change their angle of attack as this takes on a sinister and threatening tone with, “I have met you before, but this time I think you will remember.”
There’s another costume change for The Night Is Young, which is somewhere between a bacchanalian enticement and fin de siècle cabaret. Starting with a witty run though various alcoholic options, it heads towards something a little less steady on its feet, with lines like, “Dance with me again, here’s to the end of a golden era,” although there is still rum to be drunk, “So let’s forget for a while swap your tears for a smile.” The song has something of Brel via Scott Walker about it and I’m sure the latter would approve heartily.
Blaine Harrison of Mystery Jets features on Between Two Mirrors, which although comparatively quiet at the start soon builds into another epic. The multiple voices set up a dialogue that is reminiscent of Genesis, during their Foxtrot and Selling England… peak powers. Another reference point might be Decemberists, but while their last record was somewhat safer and more straight ahead, this is anything but. The mid-section gets vaguely discordant and slightly unsettling around, “Will I wake one day to find you’ve gone too far and now you can’t get back? Caught up in the fallout, in the chaos of the aftermath,” climaxing in the line, “Caught between two mirrors stretching infinite away from me.”
There is a balance between the edgy experimentation and melodic invention that continues into So It Goes, which is simultaneously reminiscent of Kate Bush and Gentle Giant, through In The Land Of the Midnight Sun that recalls the more experimental end of Kraut-rock or even musique concrète. The deep throb of Herbie Flower bass also adds a depth to the later, but the constant changes of musical perspective are utterly thrilling.
As the album nears it’s curtain call, there are still three outstanding songs, the spooky Elegy, with it’s warning of, “Never look over your shoulder,” features the unmistakable voices of The Unthanks. It’s huge and almost operatically dramatic, yet Becky’s soft tones are a beautiful contrast to the swelling orchestration and pizzicato.
The Observatory, to these ears at least sounds like Kate Bush, although great use is once more made of male voices. The percussive core of the track has a mechanical, almost clockwork logic to it, that builds into a steady thunder of tom toms, retaining a seismic rhythmical shift towards the end that adds a further twist to the journey that leads to, “Secret ways, secret paths where the thread will take us.”
Finally, there’s the brooding trip-hop of Keep It As A Memory and another lavishly orchestral piece. Brooding and full of heavily treated sound, it once more has some serious subsonics that my headphones are surprisingly capable of reproducing, giving a stunning climax to a wonderful record.
Lyrically the album is a real intrigue throughout. The title track however offers lines like, “A song made into history, an unfolding mystery a particle, a pinnacle decoded, silkily it sped along, impacted like an atom bomb suddenly the atmosphere exploded,” later adding, “Music is a monster that needs feeding.” I’d leave it there, but after strapping my space suit on at the beginning and having my mind well and truly expanded while listening, I can’t resist returning to my own little space odyssey. Constellations – “My god! It’s full of stars.” Thanks to Dr. David Bowman for summing it up nicely.
Review by: Simon Holland
Constellations is released on Navigator Records on June 2nd
ON TOUR NOW: http://www.moulettes.co.uk/shows/