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Modern Studies

Venue: Summerhall
Town: Edinburgh
Date: 24-11/16

Modern Studies are a chamber pop band, formed in early 2015 by Glasgow-based singer-songwriter Emily Scott and also featuring her old pals and collaborators Pete Harvey, Rob St. John and Joe Smillie. Building multi-textured layers of sound around Emily Scott's sparse yet evocative song structures, the band have developed a unique brand of innovative soundscapes which are both icily cool and warmly affecting. Despite being shot through with shards of melancholy, Emily Scott's songs have an uplifting and calming quality.

Modern Studies really don't sound like any other band but their music is likely to appeal to fans of, for example, Sandy Denny-era Fairport Convention, Brian Eno, Robert Wyatt, The Blue Nile and early Arcade Fire. Their debut album, "Swell To Great", released in September of this year, is as refreshing as the salt spray of the sea which features in much of the song lyrics and it looks likely to feature in many music critics' lists of the best Scottish albums of 2016.

The imposing Main Hall in Edinburgh's labyrinthine Summerhall building provided a suitably atmospheric setting for Modern Studies' gig on 24th November, with the constantly-changing moving images projected on the wall high above the band creating extra interest and adding to the sense of occasion. I was immediately struck by the expansive sound created by the intuitive interplay between the four band members. Washes of cello, piano and synths and flourishes of guitars and bass wove in and out of the delicate underlying rhythms, with Emily Scott's delightfully creaking Victorian pedal harmonium at the centre of everything.

Emily Scott's elegant and expressive vocals are a huge asset to this band and the harmonies provided by the other band members resulted in memorably soaring choruses. Some of the songs saw Emily Scott share the lead vocals with Rob St. John and their voices contrasted and blended beautifully.

All of the songs from "Swell To Great" were played impeccably, with particular highlights coming in the form of the majestic "Father Is A Craftsman", featuring a towering quasi-orchestral instrumental passage midway through; the shifting bossa nova rhythms of the breeezy Dive Bombing"; the exquisite harmonies and soaring choruses of "Sleep"; the subtle changes in tempo and mood in "Everybody's Saying" (with Emily Scott's pleading vocals and wheezing harmonium to the fore); and "Ten White Horses", which began with minimalist and repetitive piano chords underpinned by sawing cello and built gradually towards an exultant vocal chorus, carried along on waves of irresistible percussion.

The encore included a quirky take on a Bert Jansch song, which moved seamlessly into an avant-garde musical jam to bring the evening's music to a suitably dramatic conclusion.

With a quietly mesmerising debut album under their belts, backed up by sparkling live performances like this one, Modern Studies have really hit the ground running. Their individual and collective talents, versatility and potential suggest a very bright future for them.

David Ferguson

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