Aerialists – Group Manoeuvre
Fiddlehead Records – September 19th / January 2018 (UK)
In June 2016, just a few months removed from the band’s inception, and shortly after reviewing their excellent eponymous debut EP, I witnessed Aerialists perform their own sublime set and back Emily Millard. Instantly recognising there was something truly special going on here, I have been eagerly awaiting this first full-length offering and, as anticipated, Group Manoeuvre is a dazzling display of stellar musicianship, inventive arrangements, and genre-melding music inhabiting a world of its own. Therein lies one of the magnetic features of this quintet’s largely instrumental sound – with so many disparate elements organically combining, they are delightfully difficult to define.
Released on Aerialists’ guitarist Adam Iredale-Gray’s Fiddlehead Records, Group Manoeuvre and his band pretty much epitomise the label’s release policy, being to issue music whereupon “the word folk can combine tastily with words like ‘indie,’ ‘jazz,’ and even ‘prog.’” In respect of this particular release, I would also suggest, from an emotional rather than sonic perspective, a word like ‘soul.’
Joining Iredale-Gray to comprise the core Aerialists trio are the acclaimed Màiri Chaimbeul (harp/keyboards) and the brilliant Elise Boeur on fiddle. On this release, the bass and drums duties are fulfilled by Nate Sabat and Sean Trischka respectively, but depending on where the nucleus of Aerialists may be performing, and the availability of their collaborators, the rhythm section will differ. At a recent show in my hometown of Nanaimo, BC, the noted and geographically convenient session players Jake Jenne – drummer on the debut EP – and the musically chameleonic bassist, Wynston Minckler, formed a rock solid backbone.
Opening with two Chaimbeul originals, Group Manoeuvre enchants, beguiles and thrills from the first note to the last. The title track – or, to be accurate, as Group Manoeuvre II is the third track – the first part of it kicks things off in funky, complex jazz-folk style, with each musician showcasing their considerable capabilities. Chaimbeul and Boeur are prominent here, with Iredale-Gray, Sabat and Trischka knocking it out of the park behind them.
After the frenetic opener, Ink Black Ocean is initially more reflective, with shuffling drums, and a gorgeous harmonic interplay between Chaimbeul and Iredale-Gray, before Boeur enters the fray just beyond the two-minute mark to lead the band to a powerful climax. There is no time to draw breath between tracks, as the gorgeous Group Manoeuvre II begins immediately the preceding track concludes. A snaking piece based on Chaimbeul’s simple piano chords, it takes a surprising and spine-tingling left turn at 2:27 when guest contributor Emily Millard joins the track with her soft, beautiful voice to bring the piece to a close.
Providing a moody pivot, Sabat’s KMF (an acronym for I know not what) follows, and in jazz tradition, each of the core three musicians are presented with an opportunity to subtly display their skills with brief, delicate solos. It is a lovely track, and mood-wise I am reminded of Pat Metheny’s work with Lyle Mays, particularly the pastoral masterpiece As Falls Wichita, So Falls Wichita Falls.
Aerialists is a band intent not only on pushing the boundaries of folk music in an exploratory manner, but also firmly upholding folk traditions, and this approach is perfectly illustrated with the set Foxhunters/Jessica Winter’s. The former piece is a standard, beloved reel, to my knowledge recorded over two hundred times, notably by such as Planxty, Dick Gaughan, Fairport Convention and the Chieftains, while Jessica Winter’s is a Boeur original. Forming the centrepiece of Group Manoeuvre, this marvellous prog-folk recording is further enlivened by a rare (though brief) vocal appearance, in Gaelic, from the multi-talented Chaimbeul.
As seen in the FRUK preview video performance of the traditional Norwegian tune Gangar Etter Eivind Spellemann, which follows, Aerialists can rock like hell when the fancy takes them, but they can also turn in slow jams which are downright sexy. Such is the case with their take on the traditional Otter’s Holt. A head-nodder featuring silky and fiery contributions from Iredale-Gray and Boeur respectively, it is my personal favourite on an album packed with magical music. Upon performing this tune at the aforementioned Nanaimo show, Boeur amusingly recounted how, after a recent gig, a member of the audience commented to her that, when it started, he thought it would be a ‘great make-out track…until the fiddle came in’!
The curiously titled Boeur original and penultimate track, Mali, Get Your Blazer, is an elegant piece with Chaimbeul’s twinkling harp, Boeur’s yearning fiddle, and seemingly telepathic, though ultimately effortless sounding work from Trischka and Sabat all starring, before a final tour-de-force brings Group Manoeuvre to an emotional conclusion.
To wrap up your debut full-length album with a cover version is a bold move, but in this instance, it is a natural one. The Bon Iver song in question has become an integral part of Aerialists’ live shows, and for all the world sounds as if it was written to be performed by them and them alone. There have been some notable covers of Justin Vernon’s songs by such as Peter Gabriel (Flume), Ellie Goulding (The Wolves [Act I & II]), Birdy (Skinny Love), Chrissie Hynde with JP & the Fairground Boys (ditto) and many more. Passenger covered Holocene, but if there is ever a more sensitive version of that song than Aerialists’ stately treatment, I’d be happy to be called not just a monkey’s uncle, but a whole troop of them. The instrumentation that Aerialists employ, and Emily Millard’s deeply moving, gorgeous vocal (delivered with comparable tenderness live by Boeur) ensure that they come close, if not succeeding, to claiming the song as their own. Holocene is a beautiful song, an acknowledged contemporary classic composed by a master songsmith, yet lent an even greater depth of emotion in the hands of these wonderful musicians.
Group Manoeuvre is released domestically on September 19th and in the UK in January 2018, when the band will be playing their first British shows. I would advise you not to miss them when they do.
Pre-Order via Bandcamp: https://aerialists.bandcamp.com/album/group-manoeuvre
Photo Credit: Alex Waber