HAV – Inver
Folkwit Records – 5 May 2017
There is a lot to be said for slowness, both as something to aspire to for its own sake and as a reaction against the unhealthy rate at which the pressures of the modern world can bear down on us. Perhaps ironically, given the way it champions the small-scale over the large, the ‘slow movement’ is big business these days. We’ve all seen the articles about the slow food revolution. Slow travel has long been gaining in popularity. Slow parenting, marketing, media, and even slow science are all recognised as part of a wider cultural shift, and music too must be seen to be a part of the movement. By ‘slow music’ we don’t necessarily mean music with a literally downbeat tempo, but music that has a great deal of time taken over it by its makers, or that requires a certain amount of time to unfold to be experienced at its best. Inver, the debut album by three-piece ambient folk band HAV, has been slowly brewing for three years, and its makers have known each other for twenty. Accordingly, the music they make together proves to be a slow-burning pleasure.
Slowness, somewhat paradoxically, implies movement. More specifically it implies a passivity, a willingness to be moved by natural or ancient rhythms, and there are plenty of natural and ancient rhythms in evidence on Inver. In fact, from the opening seconds of the album, an emphasis is placed on the naturalness of sounds, the unhurried randomness of field recordings. Ffald-y-Brenin – an opening that unfolds over eight and a half minutes and is named after a rural Welsh retreat – begins with the sound of the sea and the calling of gulls. The track, like much of the album, is composed by multi-instrumentalist Alex Ross, while the field recordings are supplied by Jonathan Bidgood. Ian ‘Dodge’ Paterson’s bass is at times droney, providing an almost tectonic shift, but can also be subtle and airy. The early part of Ffald-y-Brenin is characterised by gentleness. A plinky music box-style intro gives way to a long exhalation of an accordion played by Bidgood, and Ross’s melancholy violin melody. The track’s changes, at first barely perceptible, create on closer inspection an endlessly varied musical landscape, like the constant movement of the surface of the sea.
In fact, the sea is a constant reference point on Inver (and indeed Hav is a Danish word meaning ‘sea’). Cullen Bay, another Ross composition, is inspired by the Moray fishing village of Cullen. This time the fiddle plays off against a minimally stately piano theme, while ambient sounds flit serendipitously in and out. About half way through, Ross’s wordless chant enhances the feeling of reverie and brings a bit of human mystery into what is otherwise a very elemental piece. As the song progresses, the fiddle quickens its pace slightly before concluding with a coda that resembles a sad, slowed-down Gaelic dance tune.
The watery theme continues with Loch Tay Boat Song, a lengthy traditional piece that rows along on the simplest and gentlest of acoustic guitar lines and features the vocal talents of both Ross and guest singer Beccy Owen (usually found fronting electro-poppers Joy Atlas, who also happen to be Paterson’s other day job). It is a truly beautiful duet, made all the more bittersweet by Owen’s unaffected singing, and ending with a dreamy ambient section lit up by occasional bright notes like the flashes of a lighthouse.
The Glenglassaugh – presumably inspired by the single malt whisky of the same name and apparently featuring field recordings made in the distillery – is another showcase for acoustic guitar, fiddle and accordion. Full of small, suggestive changes of pace, it neatly encapsulates both the time-consuming nature of distilling and the headiness of the end product. It is followed aptly by a curious (and boozy) spoken word interlude, The Young Man’s 21st Birthday, in which Ross’s great uncle, Ian, tells an obviously well-known and well-loved family tale. It is amusing in its own right but also stands as proof of the importance of the oral tradition and the ability of a good story to bring people together, even in our technologically advanced age.
Lydia’s Wedding/King O’ The North is perhaps the album’s most sprightly moment: a set of jaunty fiddle tunes that again hark back to the Gaelic dances of old, and are interwoven with much more modern-sounding, almost discordant sections. Peggy Gordon, an old folk song from Nova Scotia popularised by the Dubliners and Sinead O’Connor amongst others, is the album’s straightest traditional ballad, sung with feeling and restraint by Ross, with Paterson’s springy bass lines given space to expand into Danny Thompson-like territory. Oddly, it is not too far away from the Melvins’ weird and wonderful 2010 version of the song, at least in terms of each band’s command of the time and space within the song’s world.
Another Alex Ross tune, Goodbye (This Time Forever) ends the record on a brilliant and slightly sinister note, commencing with earthy drones that are soon usurped by flighty fiddles, while guest Andrew Aitken’s pipes add a doleful element to a track already streaked with ambivalence: there is sadness there for sure, but there is a note of hope, as there is throughout this subtle and beautiful album. The song is then nagged at by a surprising scatter of snare drums courtesy of Michael Wood, which feels like another human reference point on the wild, wide panorama before the song draws to a powerful, serene conclusion.
Inver fades out, as it began, with the sound of the sea and the fading cries of seabirds. Is this a reference to the cycles of nature – tides, seasons, lifespans – things that move so slowly they can only be perceived by deep, contemplative observation? Is the implication that nature itself is an integral component of music, or at least of the creative spirit? Either way, it rounds off a profoundly moving and expressive album that is the perfect antidote to quick fixes and empty gestures.
Inver is released on 5 May via Folkwit Records.
ALBUM LAUNCH SHOW:
27 May – Trinity Church, Gosforth, Newcastle (8 pm).
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