A collaboration between Emily Barker, Dom Coyote and Ruben Engzell, Vena Portae, the band and Vena Portae the album is a twofold delight, with a stunningly crafted debut record inspired by journeys and travel, distance and time, the past and the future, hopes and fears, despair and ultimately love.
Its cover looking slightly incongruous in the summer sunshine shows the trio, wrapped up in coats and hats, staring out from a frosty woodland, but reflects when and where the album was made and necessitates a rewind back to the winter of 2012, when they found themselves bunkered up against the weather in the Swedish town of Mölnbo on the edge of Stockholm. Naturally, but also thankfully, the three musicians found themselves in a place filled to the rafters with analogue recording and musical equipment, spring reverbs, electric guitars, banjos, pianos and an array of weird and wonderful instruments. Over the space of a month as the weather did its worst, this highly talented trio did what they do best, creating and recording these superb songs.
The reason for the time delay between recording and release is simply one of respective workloads. Emily Barker in particular has been as busy as she always seems to be and her own album, Dear River, with The Red Clay Halo, released last summer, naturally took precedence. But realising that there was something magical about Vena Portae, the album was withheld until such a time as it could be given the attention it deserved. As a result the release of the CD on the 18th August is to be accompanied by a UK tour of record shops and venues, running through the second half of August. There is also a session booked in with Dermot O’Leary on BBC Radio 2.
Further proof of both the artistic merits of the release and the seriousness with which it is being treated is in the additional bonus CD Of Remixes called Vänner, which translates as Friends. Although hardly a commonplace concept in our world it has worked wonderfully well for Lau and does so here, being a joy to listen to in its own right. The makeovers vary form a slinky, bubbling late Talking Heads feel to more spacious and trip-hoppy, but are generally on the chilled end of the spectrum.
Of course the starting point of any good remix is the original song and therein lies the success of both Vena Portae and Vänner, as the writing is superb. This is a great set of songs and whatever drew Emily, Dom and Reuben together, perhaps we should bless the weather for creating the confinement from which these sessions evolved. How much of the material pre-existed and who has penned what is somewhat open to speculation, with all of the songs, bar a cover version of Christian Kjellvander’s Transatlantic, are credited to Vena Portae collectively. It doesn’t really matter of course, but there are things that sound specific such as the Blackwood River, which became a focal metaphor for Emily’s last album Dear River.
Emily’s name should be familiar enough to the majority of FRUK regulars, but Dom Coyote has a pedigree too being an associate artists with Kneehigh Theatre. He’s worked with and composed music for The Royal Shakespeare Company, Art Angel and the National Theatre as well as creating his own brand of gig-theatre, mixing alt-folk, rock, world music and multimedia. Ruben Engzell is a multi-instrumentalist, composer and producer, who may well be known to those who take interest in the Swedish Music scene, he’s worked with Christian Kjellvander and Peter Morén (Peter Bjorn and John) amongst others. Here Ruben brings his considerable abilities to bear playing bass, guitars and keyboards, adding samples and studio know how into the mix.
Despite the wintery cover Summer Kills is the gently plaintive opener and described as, “A song about longing, about a broken past and an uncertain future. A song about regret and vain hopes. A song about love.” In the second verse Emily sings, “Ghosts in my coffee and underneath my skin, the seams of my dresses the ones you loved me in.” It’s a track that perfectly captures the magic that clearly permeated the original sessions but also the effectiveness of the remix treatments that their Vänner are able to bring to the party. The original has a quietly rolling shuffle, spiked by the swell of slide guitar and saxophone and clarinet. On the Peter Morén remix, which we’ve already premiered here, the latter element in particular creates a potent, sonorous highlight, while the whole song takes on an altogether funkier feel.
There is an instant classic feel about Before The Winter Came, which sounds a little like a song beamed out of the late 60s or early 70s, especially in the duet between Emily and Dom, the easy rolling electric guitar line and the “La, la, la” coda. The two of them also sing Foal together, which is much darker in tone, laced with cruel choices and mortality, emphasised by the banjo, which gives a backwoods location to the mini tragedy unfolding.
The lead focus changes again with Ruben taking the main vocal of Solitary Wives, while Emily providing a wonderful backing vocal counter point. The song has an almost ghostly grace and you can sense the loneliness of a vigil, staring out to sea, “Waiting for the fisherman, for the sailor boy, for the long lost son, for my lover’s arms to return.” Again it’s another track that works surprisingly well on the remix album with Ali Friend adding a pulsing synth and skittering drum pattern locking in a groove between bass and guitar.
Dom leads Turning Key, a song that sounds lyrically dense and opaque. The song is described as being inspired by the Seraphim, the flaming angels of Blake’s wild imagining and , “About building towers higher than Babel. About loneliness, despair, aspirations, curiosity, angels and spaceships.” From a sparse intro, it builds a brooding intensity with rippling piano, layered guitar lines and splashing cymbals.
The one cover version on the album is a version of Christian Kjellvander’s Transatlantic and it’s an absolute stunner. Emily’s voice is up close and intimate, with the banjo leading the song and bowed electric guitar, piano and harmonica used to heighten the emotional tension in the tale of seafaring. It sounds like a story of escape as Emily sings, “And like a thousand burning hells, I will cleanse my soul with mid-Atlantic swells.” The imagination can work overtime filling in the rest of the plot.
Passions are high and damnation is again on the agenda in Flame & Fury as Emily and Dom sing, “Crash your love upon me, all your flames and fury, smoke us out the house and damn us both to hell.” The message seems to be that love can sometimes be a dangerous thing. The song has inspired two remixes, the first from Atlas Crease a.k.a Will Calderbank, a Brighton based musician and producer formerly of The Leisure Society who has since toured the world playing cello for Mumford & Sons. He adds electric piano, some squelchy synth bass, layering cello lines into a swelling orchestral climax.Biff Roxby is a musician, remixer, producer, DJ and partner in Manchester record label Debt Records, best known as trombonist for The Bedlam Six otherwise for session hire with Elbow and the like. He also uses his signature instrument and Roxby’s Wonky Disc Remix is exactly that.
Further proof that the ambition of this record is well met comes through the closing quartet of songs. Magpie’s Carol is a gorgeous duet with Emily and Dom singing an unabashed love song, all the better for being simply arranged and allowing their voices to take centre stage.
Two feature the sea. The Mapless Sea, inspired by the writing of Ursula Le Guin is another gorgeous song with Dom in the lead, which also inspired two remixes. Stingrays is another duet featuring Emily and Dom and more about environmental catastrophe caused by deforestation in Australia, as they sing, “We’d walk through the trees until leaves gave way to sand, and wondered what we’d do after falling every tree in the land.” It finds an echo in the closing All Will Be Well, with Ruben taking the lead on the album’s darkest track, which is a beautiful piece none the less.
How this ultimately fits into Emily’s career remains to be seen, but Vena Portae certainly earns the right to be considered as more than just a side project and the contributions of Dom and Ruben should not be underestimated. In the same way, the remixes also deserve much better than sideshow status and the bonus becomes something special in its own right. To add to the format and bonus mix, the vinyl comes with a CD featuring two extra songs that didn’t make the final CD album version. If any album earns the right to be considered more that the sum of its parts then Vena Portae is it.
Review by: Simon Holland
Full Album Stream
Aug 15 – The Goods Shed – Stroud,
Aug 16 – Dermot O’Leary (live Radio 2 session)
Aug 17 – Beautiful Days Festival, Devon,Sold Out
Aug 18 – Rise, Cheltenham,Free
Aug 18 – Rise, Worcester,Free
Aug 19 – Rise, Bristol,Free
Aug 20 – Banquet Records, Kingston,Free
Aug 21 – Square Tower, Portsmouth
Aug 22 – Sound Knowledge, Marlborough
Aug 23 – Union Music Store, Lewes
Aug 23 – Music’s Not Dead, Bexhill
Aug 24 – Purbeck Folk Festival, Swanage
Aug 26 – Kitchen Garden Cafe, Birmingham
Aug 27 – Green Note, London
Aug 29 – Old Cinema Launderette, Durham
Aug 30 – Castle Hotel, Manchester
Check their website for ticket links and more details: