Robin Williamson: Scottish singer, songwriter, harpist and guitarist. Those with long memories (and adventurous taste) will readily cite his name as co-founder of The Incredible String Band, in company with Mike Heron and Clive Palmer, way back in the 1960s. But for Robin, himself, the four decades since that particular outfit disbanded have been equally productive, if not progressively more so, since he (rightly) prefers not to dwell on the past paying hollow homage or to recycle or revisit past glories but instead to keep moving on with his sights set firmly on the present, to continually focus on creating new music with a contemporary relevance. Having said that, he will always by his very nature remain refreshingly receptive to inspiration from other, and diverse, musical sub-genres (of the past as well as the present), and traditions including the timeless art of storytelling.
Robin’s 40-year career since the ISB’s demise has consisted of a fascinating, sometimes bewildering but always intensely fruitful sequence of musical ventures; his core solo performing activities have been punctuated and complemented by a staggering number of free-spirited, enterprising and innovative collaborations with other musicians. Some of these explorations have creatively developed beyond the scope of one single original project, and Robin’s latest CD offering is one of these, being the fourth in a series of recordings for the ECM label which have thus far concerned themselves in varying measure with Robin’s responses to the work of different poets (notably Dylan Thomas on 2000’s The Seed-At-Zero album, and subsequently setting the work of, among others, Henry Vaughan, William Blake, Walt Whitman and John Clare). These albums may not contain melody-rich earworms, but they’ve certainly provided plenty of aural stimulation for repeated return visits over the past decade or so, and I’ve constantly found fresh insights therein; Trusting In The Rising Light is likely to yield up its secrets just as gradually (and after all, that’s often the way with the finest and most long-lasting music).
The new disc shifts the focus from the work of other writers and poets exclusively onto Robin’s own songs and sung poetry, imparting a similarly free-thinking approach to a dozen newly composed works within his own prolific canon. In order to help realise his special, individual artistic vision, Robin has re-enlisted American viola player Mat Maneri, with whom he’d collaborated on the CD’s two immediate predecessors, 2001’s Skirting The River Road and 2005’s The Iron Stone. For this latest project, Robin has also engaged jazz drummer/percussionist Ches Smith (who, you may recall, records for ECM with Tim Berne’s Snakeoil as well as working with several other combos in the fields of alt-rock and jazz). Ches plays a selection of gongs and cymbals as well as drumkit and, interestingly, vibraphone, the latter instrument imparting a strange blend of heat and cool to the musical climate of the songs on which it appears (its sugary, succulent blocks of sound both complementing and contrasting with the alternately angular and mournful microtonal meanderings of Mat’s viola).
Robin himself is in really excellent voice, every word and nuance finely judged and compellingly enunciated, and while the contours of his melodies can often seem wandersome and wayward (in the nicest possible way), the maturity and unshakable confidence in his delivery will invariably win over any listener who is prepared to concentrate and follow the progression of the imagery through the course of the improvisatory musical argument. Mat’s special skill is in tracking Robin’s flowing lines, his trademark vocal agility and decorative tendencies, at the same time also shadowing or mirroring the filigree details within the expression of Robin’s considerable instrumental expertise (Celtic harp, guitar, Hardanger fiddle, whistles).
A good example of this symbiotic process at work is on the final song, The Islands Of The Inner Firth, where sung text, intoned poetry and autobiographical imagery both succeed and mingle with one another in music of dazzlingly inventive interplay and responsiveness. Thematically, many of the album’s songs are found to trace Robin’s continuing (entirely natural) preoccupations with life and death and mortality, shot through as they are both with perceptive metaphysical insights and a certain degree of allowable nostalgia. Musically, although Robin’s not in the habit of waxing self-referential, those listeners in the know and familiar with Robin’s previous work are bound to discern inescapable resonances of earlier musical escapades (the ornate string textures of parts of Myrrh and the cautiously jazzy experiments amidst Earthspan’s confusing cornucopia may both spring to mind, for instance). At the same time, the eternally capricious nature of much of Robin’s music has always been a key stylistic feature of his artistry, wherein recurring thoughts and images may on occasion invoke brief passing echoes, as a closer and more refined aural scrutiny of this new batch of songs will undoubtedly reveal.
Taking us through the masterful sequence of this new album, then, Trusting In The Rising Light first abruptly calls us to attention with its motto-like title phrase, before launching into a quasi-incantation that posits man’s place in the scheme of things on the ship of life, the ululating vocal line of the repeated stanza rising and falling like the ebb and flow of the tides, since we must be “Trusting the way of the waves, Their rise and fall”. We then embark resolutely on shore for Roads, wherein a languorous, almost trip-hop beat conveys the effortless and relaxed yet somehow also potentially wearisome tread of the journeying, with the tireless harp and viola as travelling companions. Both lived-in and lived-on, these “Roads lie in wait for the unwary” too: a quite sinister, potent image. The road travelled takes on a different, less threatening complexion for Our Evening Walk, which brings a poignancy of nostalgia that transcends memoir. Robin’s lyrical vocal ornamentation, over the backdrop of a dark string drone and what sounds like bowed vibraphone rescues the otherwise static course of the melody (representing a contented emotional state, perhaps), then the cautionary promise of “soon, soon, too soon” comes mirrored by a swoop into the upper register of the voice from out of the darker intonations employed for the rest of the song.
The disc’s one purely solo track The Cards turns out to have been virtually improvised in the studio. Its simple, deftly exploratory accompanying guitar strokes seem to be searching for a half-remembered melody (Carrickfergus?) – although Robin admits he based the tune on the traditional Irish harp air The Coolin – whereas in terms both of theme and imagery, the song can’t fail to recall Robin’s perennial assertion, first voiced as long ago as Koeeoaddi There, that “the natural cards revolve, ever-changing”. His vocal technique here typically embraces wandering decorations, tender falsetto and deep throaty growl with equal facility. Even more coloristic variation is to be found in the ensuing pair of songs: Just West Of Monmouth is set to an almost oriental tintinnabulation of exotic percussion, eerie cymbal strokes and clashes, with Robin’s whistle entering the tone-picture to introduce the spellbinding poetry of this landscape portrait. This is recited, impressively paced and measured, deliberate yet graceful in its depiction of elements like the bird’s flight, with trailing viola lines forming a curious counterpoint with the vibraphone’s shimmering heat haze at the piece’s conclusion. An even greater contrast follows with the bustling beat-poetry of Night Comes Quick In LA, almost playful in its seduction; in the lazy yet animated rattle of the vocalised syllables against the tumbling percussion, words become pitched, elongated musical notes (“wind”, “own”, “howl” prove more than merely onomatopœic, where the exuberance of “youth burns brighter than neon”, the improvisatory quest of the drumkit echoing the same intent as the overarching vocal part but yielding a different kind of impact.
Alive Today is an arguably less complex expression of the wonder of life surrounding us (with maybe a slight resonance of Air, the beguiling hymn-like Heron opus from Wee Tam): “Amazement Is getting to be Home to me.” Then follows These Hands Of Mine, with its delectable swing-shuffle gait that displays almost a Steve Tilston brand of foot-tapping insouciance (shaking the dust from our heels), while Robin seems to toy briefly with the Wordsworthian concept that the child is father of the man. Returning to the natural world, we discover Swan in all its glacial grace (vibraphone). Perhaps the image of the “avian galleon” is a touch obvious, as a swimming reflection of this particular White Bird, but the planes of existence “where air and water meet” are beautifully conveyed, referring back to the “deep and feathery softness” we encountered in Just West Of Monmouth earlier, while Robin’s Sprechstimme delivery somehow conjures the creature’s “swirling calligraphy”. At the close, his lone voice is left suspended in the ether when “Sail and soul, Soul and sail Between life and life Conjoined”. We remain in a white room, so to speak, for the dark meditation Fallen Snow, whose motion is mimicked by the rippling harp within the still (motionless), almost wistfully preserved winterscape, However, the song’s final image (“the untrodden snow For me is like a token Of all that can never be known”) is both resigned and ominous.
The affectionate Your Kisses, effectively the disc’s love song from Robin to his wife Bina, briefly reintroduces the sea imagery, but now with a less restless, more contented backbeat, an expression of ongoing, eternal love. The Islands Of The Inner Firth, the CD’s closing song, bookends the title track and mirrors its undulating vocal line. Now out of the sea, Robin darts around on the beach, enchanted with the island names, and skips with the agility of the vibraphone player over the rocks on the shore, then walking on water, over water, islands and silver meadow which all merge into one land, “the untainted Eden Never lost”. And thus we reach our journey’s end, quite as abruptly as we began it some 50 minutes earlier.
Robin’s own artistic integrity triumphs over any initial impression of inaccessibility that may be due to the unique properties of his musical and literary invention, qualities that are so fittingly supported by Mat and Ches here. As a result, Trusting In The Rising Light is a seriously haunting album, a work of satisfying depth whose precision of execution, though at times seemingly dry, even brittle, nevertheless embodies a true warmth and humanity. It just has to be counted amongst Robin’s best work to date.
Review by: David Kidman
Out Now via ECM
Order via Amazon