It seems like every time I turn my back Alasdair's brought out another new record, either solo or with one of his massive pool of potential or actual collaborators. Pangs, the latest, is the closest he's yet come to folk-rock as we know it, possibly due to the constant presence of drummer Alex Neilson and bassist Stevie Jones, with whom Alasdair regularly tours these days. But when I mention folk-rock, I don't mean the lumbering beast of the festival stages but instead the more trippy, more delicate creature of the more intimate venues; the key lies in the nature of the beat, as it were: Alex's very individual, perennially inventive drumming style. Overlaid onto the electric base, there's embellishments from flute (Tom Crossley), fiddle (Rafe Fitzpatrick), cello (Jessica Kerr) and organ/piano/harmonium, although the overall aural perspective is sometimes quite opaque and doesn't always keep those timbres in focus. Pangs provides a contrast with the primarily acoustic stripped-back textures of its predecessor (Alasdair's eponymous 2015 album), a kind of halfway-house staging-post to the fuller-on soundscapes of Trembling Bells perhaps.
The writing, however, is quintessential Alasdair Roberts - incisive commentaries for our time that espouse traditional modes and forms with an eye and ear for looking both back and forward. The piquant melodies and deft, playful and often eccentric instrumental scoring underscore the lyrics brilliantly and are further informed by the acute interpersonal chemistry between Alasdair and his fellow-musicians. The spirit of the ISB in their heyday is strongly recalled, not just in Alasdair's at times decidedly Robin-Williamson-esque singing but also in the keenly evocative imagery of songs like No Dawn Song (a tapestry of boyhood reminiscences), Song Of The Marvels (obscure riddlings and incantations) and Vespers Chime (arcane metaphysics). An Altar In The Glade seems a straightforward tale, but closer listening reveals linked meanings and correspondences, while even the superficially calmer aura of Scarce Of Fishing (its tune derived from a pibroch) belies the pain of its vision. On the other hand, The Angry Laughing God displays an almost punk energy in its cheeky transmutation of a Celtic session tune into a charging romp, and The Downward Road even incorporates some animated retro synthesiser noodlings into its busy, bustling texture. But I keep finding myself returning to the opening (title) track, a calling-on song with infectious tumbling bass and glistening guitar solo (and delectable backing vocal from Debbie Armour), and the mythical yearnings of The Breach.
Pangs is, typically, another of those latter-day folk albums that reveals much in repeated listens, and it swiftly earns its place within Alasdair's own canon. The accompanying booklet is very attractive too, contains full lyrics and credits and appealing botanical artwork.
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