There’s so much to enthuse about in Amy Duncan’s fifth album, Undercurrents, I hardly know where to begin. Here at Folk Radio UK, we’re very fond of Amy’s music, and with good reason. With her classical training, multi-instrumental skills and ability to write songs with a rare depth and sincerity; her remarkable album Cycles Of Life, left us certain her next project would prove an even more significant step forward. In October last year we featured Different Dimensions from Undercurrents as Song of the Day, and were given a glimpse of just how well she’s met those expectations. The album is released on 19th February, and is already earning glowing reviews.
On Undercurrents Amy plays acoustic guitars, electric guitars, piano, keyboard and double bass. She’s joined once again by long-term collaborator Fiona Rutherford on harp, and it’s a combination that continues to provide engaging music. Add Calum Malcolm on production; Lawrie MacMillan (bass guitar), Liam Bradley (drums, percussion) and Scottish Chamber Orchestra musicians Sijie Chen (violin) Jane Atkins (viola) and Donald Gillan (cello) and we have an ensemble that can really do justice to Amy’s intricate songs and arrangements.
It’s often surprising how the softest of voices can command the most rapt attention. As the album opens, with The Good Life, Amy’s soft expressive voice does just that from the very outset. Backed by a combination of soft guitar and harp, there’s just enough keyboard and percussion to expand the sound and provide subtle harmonies without overpowering. That pairing of Amy’s guitar and Fiona’s harp very much sets the tone for the album, evoking a sense of gentle melancholy that is, nonetheless, immediately warming.
The sound can change as the song requires, such as in the slightly psychedelic Different Dimensions with its subtle discord toward the end, or the more authoritative guitar voice in Complicated Human. At times there’s impressive and significant augmentation – in All The Love strong percussion, bowed strings and Calum Malcolm’s deft touches of electronica add an atmosphere faintly reminiscent of his exceptional work with The Blue Nile.
The accompaniment is expertly written and arranged, but enjoys an increased significance as the setting for Amy’s powerful songs and quite staggeringly impressive vocal performance. No Harvest makes strong demands on Amy’s vocal abilities, which she meets with consummate skill, while snatches of reverbed electric guitar are introduced; providing unexpected, and attractive, detail. Lights In Houses and All The Love use layers of vocal to mesmerizing effect.
However, just as the instruments provide a backdrop for the vocal; the vocal itself is the vehicle for the delivery of Amy’s outstanding songs. And it’s through these songs that the true depth of this album is revealed to the listener, piece by perfect piece. Amy writes songs and music that reflect her artwork: clear outlines that embrace depths of detail, splashes of colour. While not overloading her audience’s perceptions, she writes lyrics that are significant, sincere and compelling. The songs are at times darkly disturbing, as in No Harvest, yet with a beautiful honesty…
“I cast all of my hopes out on the field, but this land will never yield. And there will be no harvest”
A song can come to an abrupt halt on a word, or include a gentle instrumental close, as if offering breathing space in which to come to terms with, or savour, Amy’s thoughts. My Silver Net provides a compelling example of the latter, with its positive, forward-looking message
“And even on the darkest of days
love will make a path through the waves
my silver net will bring
treasure form the deep
my silver net will bring
treasure from the deep”
… and then an exquisite bass and piano led interlude to close.
Amy could have left the album there and I’d be fulfilled, but there’s more, still more.
It isn’t often I experience such difficulty drawing a line under a review – but Undercurrents provides the listener with so much to reflect on, with each successive airing, it’s almost as if you never really reach the end of the album. There are no lyrical or melodic hooks here. There is craft, there is poetry, there is depth. Like the never-ending forces alluded to in the title, these undercurrents go deep; and with a strong, unpredictable flow.
Amy’s arrangements are more experimental than first impressions would indicate, she moves beyond the immediate perception of acoustic music, into realms of creativity that provide far more depth of sound, more intricate sonic structures than you’d usually expect ‘unplugged’. Then there are the beguiling vocals – soft, but with a radiance all their own; hypnotic, captivating. Amy digs far deeper for her lyrics than most would, and her singular, truly individual song writing style adds to the feeling that this album can be like a living thing at times. It has its own pulse that quickens and steadies.
Let’s get one thing straight – I can’t hope to do this album justice in a simple review. With Undercurrents, Amy Duncan takes us beneath the visible surface, beyond our immediate perception, to the myriad, unpredictable depths. Words like ‘captivating’, ‘exceptional’ and ‘powerful’ only scratch the surface. All I can hope to do is draw your attention to Undercurrents, summarise its merits, urge you to listen to the sample tracks. If that’s enough to grab your attention, to spark an interest, go and buy the album immediately. Then you’ll know what I mean.
Review by: Neil McFadyen
Undercurrents is due for release 19th February 2016
Pre-order ‘Undercurrents’ via Pledge & get 2 songs instantly, entry to the album launch + other exclusives: www.pledgemusic.com/projects/amy-duncan