Despite a fluid and ever-changing membership (not to mention an admirably diverse collection of musical instruments and noise-making gadgets) United Bible Studies have honed an original and at times unmistakeable sound in their prolific thirteen-year recording history. To put it in perhaps overly simplistic terms, they have one foot in the ambient/drone camp and the other in wyrd world of psych-folk. But more important is their willingness to embrace unconventional musical structures and at times do away with these structures altogether, instead creating collage-like, improvisational pieces that owe more to sound art and contemporary composition than they do to traditional or popular music.
Their latest album Doineann continues to see them functioning as a loose collective rather than a band in the old-fashioned sense. Opener Helix sees the group’s de facto cadre of David Colohan and Richard Moult joined Natalia Beylis, whose simple piano theme takes centre stage, its clarity cleansing the palate for what is to come. It is followed by Clay In My Hand, a song that features an entirely different set of musicians. This one is guitarist Paul Condon’s baby – his vocals and heavily treated electric guitar are joined by the gentle harp of Áine O’Dwyer. After a placid opening, there follows a guitar solo so prominent in the mix and so evocatively played that it recalls an eerier Mike Oldfield. Conlon and O’Dwyer’s sole contribution to the record, it is nonetheless an important one.
Doineann is an Irish word that refers to a period of stormy weather, and the long, synth-led title track tells the story of a storm in musical form. The random-seeming plings of Colohan’s autoharp conjure up the first sparse but heavy drops of rain, while Moult’s electronic beeps and field recordings bring to mind the frightened scuttling of small animals. A third of the way in, Emer Brady’s mournful sax kicks in, playing off against Enda Trautt’s skittering, improvised shower of percussion.
Alison O’Donnell makes a welcome appearance on Across The Blackened Fields. The former Mellow Candle singer has grown richer, witchier, and more interesting with age. Here, multi-tracked, she is frost-bitten and brooding. An electronic throb, intensifying almost imperceptibly, leads the song to its open ended conclusion. With its pagan atmosphere and synthetic bleeps it is an unlikely but successful meeting of ancient and modern, and as such is a neat summation of both sides of the UBS coin. Seachránaí on the other hand (the title translates as ‘wanderer’ or ‘rover’) is entirely the work of main men Colohan and Moult. Colohan’s earthy, wordless vocal and insistent, almost trudging harpsichord is joined by a synth backdrop so sweeping that it comes to resemble a wind over an empty plain. If it hasn’t become so already, it should now be apparent that Doineann’s music is inseparable from its landscapes – the landscapes it describes and those in which it was composed and recorded. These are landscapes that are sometimes local but which never lose their universality. Crucially, it feels as if we are experiencing these often giant natural landscapes from their own points of view and at their own speeds rather than the point of view of a mere human or musician.
Nowhere is this truer than in the final track, Halo. Here Moult takes on the vocal duties for a lengthy, shifting piece that includes electronic tics, wordless gothic choirs and a glacially-paced duet between electric guitar and David Colohan’s autoharp. It is perhaps the best showcase for Colohan’s impressive timing. Towards the end the track fades out and then resurges on a single but almost orchestral synth note – like a post-ambient take on the Beatles’ A Day In The Life. It is a quietly audacious end to an album full of natural grandeur and musical inventiveness.
Review by: Thomas Blake
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