With their groundbreaking blend of classical quartet disciplines, minimalism and modernism, pepped by a healthy regard for the connectivity to our humanity in mining the folk tradition for melodic inspiration, Spiro have understandably created quite a stir as they have charted their unique course through music. Although they appear to have taken their time, with a no compromise doing things the Spiro way approach, the signing to Real World has seen an upping of the intensity and Welcome Joy Welcome Sorrow is vibrant, thrilling, intense and filmic. A celebration of grabbing life for all it is worth. It’s beautifully played and orchestrated with precision, forming exquisitely detailed music with ever changing melodic patterns, mesmeric and euphoric as they rise and spiral on vespers, eddies and waves of emotion. At times almost meditational, at others playful this is a record that is totally immersive, drawing you deeper, ever deeper into its musical embrace.
Spiro first appeared on the Bristol acoustic and folk circuit in the mid 90s, the four musicians, two from the classical world and two with a punk and indie background, found a simultaneous attraction to the pub session scene. Although no detailed account of that time is available it seems that of the quartet, accordionist Jason Sparkes, who had started his classical studies at a very early age, had started to find inspiration from his morris-dancing father. Meanwhile, guitarist Jon Hunt’s musical trajectory had taken him through folk music to the post punk scene, although he retained a well preserved love for the English tradition.
For the other two, the journey was less clear cut. Violinist Jane Harbour studied classical violin in Japan under the legendary Shinichi Suzuki. Her inspirations were largely classical stuff like Bartok and Stravinsky and Britten. She claims also to have received instruction at one point to treat her violin like a drum-kit, so allied with that modernism is a feel for dissonance, strange harmonies and counter rhythms. But the other side of her musical coin are the repetitive beats of club culture and the ecstatic feel of dance music. Alex Vann, however, had started out as a drummer, working his way through the punk scene, before switching to guitar and ultimately making the mandolin his musical instrument of choice.
They first emerged from these meetings as The Famous Five, although the line up as a quartet has remained unchanged, releasing one album in 94 called Lost In Fishponds, a reference to their Bristol home town. Rebranded as Spiro, a second album, Pole Star, followed three years later, but then there was something of a gap, before their signing to Real World in 2009 and the release of Lightbox that year. That deal proved the catalyst for picking up the pace and the arrival of Welcome Joy Welcome Sorrow marks their fifth release for the label, if you include the re-issue of Pole Star and also the half remix, half live mini album The Vapourer.
Throughout their career to date Spiro have picked up consistent critical acclaim, although the comments of Real World Records founding father, Peter Gabriel are probably as telling as anything, as he said, “When I first listened to the music of Spiro, I thought it was really different. The sounds that hit you first are sounds that you are familiar with; they sound folky, but once you start listening to the music and how it’s composed you hear elements of systems music – people like Steve Reich, Philip Glass, dance music. All sorts of musical influences are woven into this very contemporary music. I think this is soulful music, passionate music and I love it.”
That’s probably as good a summary of the obvious components that feed into the Spiro machine as you’ll get. They are fond of incorporating folk tunes, although generally from a good 250-300 miles further north than their Bristol base. That said they form the core of only five of the 14 tracks on Welcome Joy Welcome Sorrow, with the rest being newly composed, although either way it’s what Spiro do with the tunes that gives them their unique, mesmerising sound.
It should also be noted that there are four players and all that you hear are four instruments at any one time, just the tightly scripted lines that mesh and whirr as Spiro slip through their musical gears. While three of them play two instruments, with Jane on violin and viola, Jason on accordion and piano and Jon on guitar and cello, it’s an either or scenario and what they do live and in the studio are much the same.
Perhaps that speaks of the disciplines and classical background of the chief arranger Jane Harbour. She’s also the main contributor to the original material, but is also the one with the skill, patience and trust of the others to pick through the ideas, experiments, jam sessions and trials to find the best course for the tunes to follow. Whilst she talks in terms of nuts and bolts, systems and meshing ideas to serve the collective, with no room for individual showboating, it’s also clear that the goal is to achieve an emotional resonance for the collective to draw on. They know each other very well both musically and emotionally, so there is a shared understanding of when something feels right, so Spiro are not afraid to ditch something if it doesn’t hit the sweet spot, regardless of the hours invested.
Accordingly, Welcome Joy Welcome Sorrow is the pure essence of Spiro, the band as they currently are refined to nth degree of euphonious pleasure. On first taste its something of great complexity and gravity of structure, yet paradoxically at the heart of it is a simplicity. Jon has even talked about trying to distil his playing down to the most minimal lines that he can muster, so that even the smallest change can set up a new direction or momentum to a piece.
You could argue that this record works on different levels and could certainly imagine much of it scoring filmic scenes, playing as incidental music, if you will as the visuals roll by, yet it’s music that also demands attention and commands it once snared. You find yourself following patterns, hooked into riffs, feeling every nuance of the interplay, especially between the chiming mandolin, the soaring violin and the heavy wheeze of accordion on opener, I Am The Blaze On Every Hill, while the rapidly strummed guitar provides the surging momentum. But there are changes of tempo and mood, suddenly the upper notes of the accordion reach out and tickle the synapses, pushing the tune towards its urgent conclusion.
It’s an album of many moods, with Jon, true to his word, keeping his guitar playing simple and providing the rhythmic bed for most of the tracks above which, the spiralling riffs and dashing interplay between accordion, mandolin and violin create multi-faceted jewels from the melodies and folk tunes. Blyth High Light, referring to the lighthouse is brightly melodic, with sweeps of accordion, while mandolin and violin float across each other through Flying In The Hours Of Darkness. There are slightly darker drop-outs in the urgent pace of Burning Bridge and darker still dissonance introducing the slower And All Through The Winter He Hid Himself Away. One Train May Hide Another is almost percussive over a steady pulse of plucked cello notes, with the accordion warping the harmonies.
Although the tacks are wordless, they are highly evocative and the titles seem to make sense of the mental film reel, so Will You Go Walk The Woods So Wild, is stormy and you can imagine the shifting patterns in the wind whipped trees. The Mandolin and violin circle each other, with guitar and accordion guiding their steps in a courtly dance for Orrery, a tune inspired by the mechanical models of our solar system. The Vapourer, inspired by the moth of that name, by contrast is flighty and restless. Marineville, the underwater Stingray base has a quietly epic feel in its steady riff, while Thought Fox, plays with the illusiveness of inspiration with guitar and mandolin playing at either extreme of the soundstage, while the violin skirts around the main melody.
The pace changes too and there’s a quickening to Folded In The Arms Of The Earth, while The Still Point Of The Turning World slows things down, with four criss-crossing musical motifs, using a trickling piano, spare, descending mandolin and steady cello riff over a droning violin. Finally the title track is urged on by the mandolin, setting into something epic and euphoric, with the sonorous viola and full and lush accordion rising on the melody, as the guitar once more provides the platform for the tune to take off.
With each successive work Spiro seem to get better, as the hours playing with and for each other have their effect, building up the emotional connectivity at their collective core. The same could also be said for the listener working to make their own links to that, but as described above, for an instrumental band, their tunes seem to have plenty to say, or at least suggest. Welcome Joy Welcome Sorrow is as literate as music of this type can be, shaping mood and mindset, while the final imagery is yours to create. A show-reel of daydreams awaits, so swallow this CD whole as the music swallows you.
Review by: Simon Holland
UK Tour Dates
Apr 08 – London, St. Pancras Old Church
Apr 23 – Shoreham-by-Sea, W. Sussex, Ropetackle Arts Centre
Apr 24 – Tewkesbury, Roses Theatre
Apr 25 – South Petherton, St David’s Hall
Apr 30 – Elgin, Spirit of Speyside Sessions
May 08 – Farnham, Maltings
May 14 – Basingstoke, The Forge at the Anvil
May 16 – Barnsley, The Civic
May 17 – Oxfordshire, Wood Festival
May 22 – Hay-on-Wye, How the Light Gets In
May 23 – Truro, Cornwall, Hall for Cornwall
May 31 – Bristol, Lau-Land at Colston Hall
Jun 10 – Bedford, The Place