You could say that Lau exploded out of the blocks onto the folk scene with their debut album in 2007, and their immediate impact saw them win Best Group at the Folk Awards for three consecutive years. On the back of that blistering start Lau emerged as fearless innovators and a band that never wanted to stand still or get mired in repetition. At the core are still the same trio of acoustic instrumentalists with an enduring love of traditional music, but by constantly pushing themselves, numerous collaborations with others and all manner of exciting individual ventures, the band has evolved and act as the mothership for an extraordinary artistic outpouring and some of the best music being made anywhere in any genre. Now with the new album scheduled for May release, Lau’s mothership remains on course and The Bell That Never Rang charts bold new frontiers. Is it the best Lau album yet? There’s absolutely no doubt about it!
There’s a video about the album, featuring footage of Lau, Joan as Police Woman and The Elysian Quartet in Castlesound Studios recording the album. It’s clear from watching it that a lot of energy has gone into the making of the record, everyone seems enthused. For Joan it was a first chance to sit in the producer’s chair, recording a whole album with another band. For Lau it was an opportunity to test the increasing sense of freedom that they had started to find in their writing and playing together.
In part that has come from the way they have developed a mutual trust and common purpose and with that a relaxed sense that the end result will come. It’s also the way that they’ve started to distil inspiration down into smaller units. As Martin told me when we spoke at Lau Land, “We used to write whole tunes, but now it can be just a riff, or even a sound that we try to work into something.” Kris was also keen to emphasise that every idea that gets thrown into the ring, then belongs to Lau, so there is no longer a sense of individual ownership of tunes or riffs, simply because it’s the work that they all do with the ideas that shapes the outcome.
Joan expressing her own excitement added, “You couldn’t hope for better musicians or cooler guys though and I’m sure their music can be pushed, because they’re already doing that themselves. Martin also explained how a bigger budget this time around also gave them more freedom to leave things unfinished and open ended for the recording sessions. With all the previous albums, the circumstances dictated that everything needed to be rehearsed down to the last detail in order to deliver the record. This time things are different and the band are trusting their ability to work quickly with the ideas and to take Joan’s input as an equal part of that process.
Aidan had explained how a musical trip the trio had made to New York led to Joan’s invitation. They were able to take in some music as well as seeing the sights and soaking up the Big Apple’s unique creative atmosphere. As Aidan told me, “It was when we got back and talked about the experiences and the excitement of the trip, we decided to invite Joan in to produce us.” Martin concluded “Joan is from that City and that musical world.”
In many ways it all fits with Lau’s natural development. It’s all about their individual and collective experience and also the opportunities that their success has created, with the American trip, Lau Land and their individual projects that all fit back into the mix. Emblematic of this is the central pillar of the new record and the track, The Bell That Never Rang, which was originally commissioned by the Celtic Connections festival to mark the Commonwealth Games coming to the city. Whilst it is common practice for Lau to adapt things as they play them live, making changes here and there to suit the flow of performance, this long piece was substantially rewritten, with the parts reordered as they took it to the stage. It evolved through half a dozen performances until the final arrangement was settled upon. Doubtless, like everything else it will have had a final examination in the studio to create the version you’ll hear on the record.
It’s a brilliant piece too and finds Lau collaborating with the Elysian Quartet. The string ensemble are known to be musically adventurous and although they can naturally play to a chart, they are also keen improvisers, a facet that Lau have used to their advantage here, using a combination of the two techniques, thus opening up the recording process yet again. It helps that the track runs to 17 minutes, which even by Lau’s standards is long, but it allows the individual movements within the piece to develop within the natural flow.
In some ways it balances the album, with all of the other tracks on the record being songs, albeit in a couple of cases having lengthy intros before Kris voice makes its presence felt. Even The Bell That Never Rang isn’t wordless, but it’s over nine and a half minutes in before Kris sings, “You pulled me from the river with a ring in my mouth.” The lyrics, like the title, link the song to Glasgow’s coat of arms with its peculiar mix of folklore and religious symbolism relating to the legends of St. Mungo, who apparently founded an important, early monastery and sought the prosperity of the future settlement through spiritual entreaty. The city’s motto is a secular version of his prayer, shortened to “Let Glasgow flourish.”
But there is also something much more personal going on and the tolling of the bell is ominous. For Kris, the salmon pulled from the river, represents a close friend who died suddenly and was pulled from this life. The song section swells to a massed chorus of layered voice, with Joan also in the mix and although not credited in the album notes, the film of the making suggests Aidan and Martin are also there. The repeated refrain of “Nobody knows when you’ll go, And no one thinks to tell you,” is a moving statement of loss. It’s bookended by extended instrumental movements, with the strings dominating the first part and being joined by Lau for the dramatic final section.
Perhaps the feeling of the album’s balance is enhanced by the way that the four tracks that precede it take up roughly 22 minutes, which is almost exactly the same time as The Bell That Never Rang and the song Ghosts that follows, concluding the album.
Of those songs, the opener First Homecoming is marginally the shortest at 4.40, it sets the benchmark too, with its grungy heavily treated sounds and quirky, yet compelling, lurching rhythm. It’s a good 40 seconds before Kris sings, “I lost myself down the water road, I took myself to the ocean.” If that sounds like a lonely act, then the song unfolds into the opposite as Kris continues, “In this new place I call my home,” and it seems Kris has been woken by the breathing body beside his. There’s perhaps a suggestion of the smaller fragments that Lau are working with in the breakdown, with the guitar and fiddle in call and response around a little nugget of melody at the heart of the song. It’s brilliant stuff.
There are echoes of that process throughout, but it’s worth stating that this is a record of wonderful melodic invention every bit as much as it’s about sonic adventure, although it’s certainly the latter. There a strong rhythmic drive about The Death Of The Dining Car, one of the rock out moments of the record, yet again the devil is in the melodic detail and little flurries are happening on the fringes, landing a new hook with each successive play. Finally the motifs coalesce knocking the rhythms off kilter, it’s strange, but once again quite brilliant.
Back In Love starts with an extended dose of Kris’ fluid acoustic guitar work and again things happen at the fringes of the tune, before the trio build and build around circling riffs and the refrain, “We fall out and we fall back in love again.” There are more micro-details saved for the ending, yet it’s the elegance of that guitar line carrying the song to its finale.
The more grungy, post-rock treatments to Armoured Man returns us to jerky rhythms, while adding some serious heft to the sub-sonics at the bottom end of the track. A little echo of melody seems to act like a variation on that fragment in First Homecoming, although it might be my imagination.
The concluding Ghosts is simply one of the very best songs Lau have written and in the current climate a powerful piece too. In some ways it echoes the sentiments of First Homecoming, in searching for a place to belong too, yet also asks questions about outsiders and the generations who have migrated to find safety and security. Relatively it’s the record’s straightest, folk moment and poignantly asks, “And sir I was born here, so where would I go?” Whether you relate it to the highland clearances, the waves who headed for America, or the so called scourge of people escaping the hardship of life and trying to settle in the UK, with one added generation onwards it’s the same question.
The Bell That Never Rang is a remarkable record capturing Lau as they head towards their creative peak. Everything seems to be working together, the new sense of freedom, the ways that the individuals have pushed themselves and continue to develop as musicians, the spirit of collaboration learnt firstly from trusting each other, but widened to bring in outside influence and skill as needs be, the willingness to experiment with sound, tone and texture but above all the ability to fit it all in one common purpose, to get the most out of the tune and the song. The Bell That Never Rang tolls loud and clear, it tolls for Lau and it tolls for thee, but it tolls in joyous celebration of a band that consistently sets the standards for others to follow. Make sure you don’t miss the ‘mothership connection’.
It should be added that the album is dedicated to memory of Vince Sipprell, one of the Elysian Quartet who tragically died earlier this year.
Review by: Simon Holland
Lau – The Bell That Never Rang (radio edit) Official Video
Released 4th May via Reveal Records
Lau will tour the new album from May with support from Siobhan Wilson
The Bell That Never Rang Tour
14 – Glasgow, St Andrews in the Square
15 – Perth, Concert Hall
16 – Liverpool, Epstein Theatre
17 – Manchester, Dancehouse Theatre
19 – Leeds, Howard Assembly Room
20 – Brighton, Komedia
21 – London, Union Chapel
23 – Truro, Hall For Cornwall
24 – Coventry, Warwick Arts Centre
26 – Lerwick, Mareel
27 – Aberdeen, Music Hall
28 – Stirling, Tolbooth
You can order the album now, on deluxe CD with art print, double vinyl and download from the Reveal Records store here.
Or the Lau store here http://laumusic.bigcartel.com/