Bare Bones: Moon Phases I-IX and Reliquary (Parts I-VII)
Rif Mountain – 2017 (Cat No.RM027CD / RM028CD)
When I first heard these two albums – Moon Phases I-IX and Reliquary (Parts I-VII) – by Bare Bones, I immediately found them interesting and intriguing. Let me say straightway that you will not hear a lyrical ballad dealing with the death of a maiden, nor a jumpy folk dance tune or even a bawdy broadsheet. What you get is a gallery of solid objects set around common themes.
Let me explain.
The physical tools of these albums are in the hands of Jason Steel and Dom Cooper. They include banjo, guitar, violin, zither and thumb piano as well as percussion, organ and synth. There are also loops of instruments, of found sounds and of vocals. These are the implements with which Bare Bones builds their sound world, a world of texture and grain, of monochrome and colour. There is, too, the aural equivalent of the lost wax method, as these sounds can be best described as sculptural. They take on a physical shape as they build, forming a multi-dimensional image in front of you.
Moon Phases, as the title suggests, is a sequence of nine pieces that have been inspired by the phases of the moon, recorded during the phases of the moon, and completed on a new moon. The album opens innocently enough with a guitar refrain that could be leading to a song but is soon joined by reeds that come and go, clouds passing across the lunar landscape. The use of repetitive refrains sets up a rhythm in the body that enjoys the emphasis of percussion every now and then. The guitar stops, the thumb piano keeps the basic rhythm going and then a distorted guitar comes into view, our sculpture turns from the comfortable to the slightly uncomfortable.
Many of the Phases use repetitive refrains as if these are central though not necessarily the thing that you might notice in passing. These phrases are just the sort of catch bars found in many a folk tune, plucked here on banjo or guitar, or even thumb piano. Phase II is quieter and somehow closer, whilst Phase III merges into an empty open space where trees, wind, streams gently move in the background. This suggestion of the elemental is very prominent in Moon Phases: a loop of scratch on a record in one track is rain; another sound on another track is a running stream. The final two tracks on the album start with a restful recognition that perhaps the full moon has passed (Phase VIII), yet whatever solace was gained, the album ends with a distorted fog blunting distant vocals. There is a certain finality here but without any real feeling of closure: the moon has completed its journey around the Earth and will start again.
Reliquary has a much harder edge at the start. The first track, River of the Sun, is also elemental, the rays beating down, a constant heat from an electronic drone. There is no shade. The elemental allusion may be more subtle in other tracks as the emphasis shifts at times, soaking up other influences, most notably that of the Indian raga. A Heavy Feather is the first of a few that clearly have more than a hint of the East. The looped bowed strings, reminiscent of the esraj or the tanpura, set a tension as well as a backdrop to the plucked strings of the banjo building a repetitive rhythm.
This use of a raw backdrop on which to build the forward sounds provides a constant battleground. Witness Mark juxtaposes a gentle acoustic guitar with a raw aural equivalent of jagged metal; not large spikes, just rough and sharp in places. A lower level hum at the back of Dreaming Down allows a fluid guitar more opportunity, more melody, capturing the folky acoustic dreams from the late sixties in places (think Granchester Meadows). However, unknown to me, the tension is still there and when the nature of the backdrop changes, a sense of relief washes over me without realising I needed it.
These two albums have a lot in common. The use of the open air and the countryside in Moon Phases can be seen but there are overtones of an industrial soundscape in Bare Bones’ work that becomes prominent in Reliquary. It is almost a lament for the bucolic myth, the green that never was and now may never be – the music of the people, representing their connections with the earth, being pulled apart by the action of the constant imposition of the hard, unswerving industrial landscape.
These sculptures make us think, invite us to explore the tensions set up in these tracks, to take an opportunity to consider the body’s physical response to stress. In We Live Still the tension between the drone – which here is not so much provoking a feeling of menace and apprehension, more a benign spirit with the merest hint of malignancy- is at counterpoint to the fractured pickings of the banjo. It is these almost-tunes, ones that do not quite get there, that create the tension. These repetitive refrains, a feature in many folk tunes, are fragments but from where? Perhaps they are memories, possibly from dreams. Memories of a reality that never really existed outside our minds, except when asleep? I wonder if this is why I think that these two albums should be listened to at night?
While they are not joined at the hip I would recommend that you listen to both albums. Here is a different, experimental and immersive experience that is full of the elements of folk, acoustic and world music, full of the elemental, and full of body, shape and texture. Well worth the listen – and do touch the exhibits.