Album ReviewsReviews

A Year In The Country — United Bible Studies - Doineann


“E3” by A Year In The Coun­try

In my 2012 review of The Cloisters, I had writ­ten about how the ima­gined land­scape (Bri­tain, in these cases) fea­tures so strongly in some strains of con­tem­por­ary exper­i­mental folk music. Gran­ted, this has been a cent­ral theme in folk since the 60s revival, but as I argue, the ease with which elec­tronic manip­u­la­tion can be applied these days has really influ­enced some of the more exper­i­mental folk works in the past dec­ade or so. This heightened inter­play of the ‘acous­tic’ and elec­tronic, and in a broader sense, between the rural and the urban, makes for a lim­inal artistic and ima­gin­ary field that is find­ing dif­fer­ent forms of expres­sion these days.

One of these forms  is the online blog / travelogue. Around the end of the pre­vi­ous dec­ade, Richard Skelton walked this path with his Land­ings blog, which com­bined pho­to­graphs, poems, and pieces of music recor­ded in the field. While that blog has since dis­ap­peared and the mater­ial mainly lives on in Skelton’s 2LP + book Landings, the blog illus­trated the viab­il­ity of the concept — I’ve kept an off­line copy of almost all of the Land­ings mater­ial just in case it would go off­line; a pres­ci­ent decision in the end.

This year saw a new blog appear that oper­ates in sim­ilar ter­rit­ory but not quite in the same way. A Year In The Coun­try is a diary of influ­ences and sens­ib­il­it­ies, a per­sonal explor­a­tion of the uncanny in the Eng­lish coun­tryside dream and how this is informed by vari­ous art forms. The blog is a daily series of posts present­ing pho­to­graphs of land­scapes, essays about par­tic­u­lar music albums, books, films, and the sale of lim­ited edi­tion arte­facts fit­ting the over­all theme.

One days post might be about Rob Young’s excel­lent book Elec­tric Eden, an extens­ive study of the rural in elec­tric Eng­lish cul­ture in the 20th cen­tury and early 21st cen­tury. You can see why it would be rel­ev­ant to the blog — and to Even­ing of Light for that mat­ter. I enjoyed the book greatly when I read it a couple of years ago. Another day’s post might just have a pho­to­graph of a cloud­scape, or a set of but­tons for sale.

Once every week AYITC pro­duces the lim­ited edi­tion arte­fact, some of which are music releases… and here is where the blog really coin­cides with my ana­lysis of e.g. the album by The Cloisters ref­er­enced above. That AYITC and EoL are more or less on the same track when it comes to grasp­ing at the heart of this ‘unsettled bucolic dream’ move­ment is illus­trated by the fact that we grav­it­ate towards the same artists.

Earlier in the year, for example, the blog released the curi­ous Nine of Swords by Michael Tan­ner — indeed, he of Plinth / The Cloisters — as one of these arte­facts. It is a tarot-inspired med­it­a­tion for singing bowls and bells which in itself is indic­at­ive of how vari­ous influ­ences have enriched exper­i­mental folk artistry through­out the years.


Today I want to focus on another recent arte­fact from the series, though: United Bible Stud­iesDoineann. I’m very thank­ful that this ori­gin­ally Irish col­lect­ive has been so pro­lific these past few years — one of the few artists that man­age to fas­cin­ate me over the course of many years, albums, and chan­ging approaches. It almost goes without say­ing that UBS is one of those artists that is per­fectly suited for inclu­sion in the AYITC series: rooted in Irish and Brit­ish folk music, but exper­i­mental and impro­visa­tional from day one: not afraid to throw in synths, manip­u­la­tions, crunchy gui­tars, sax, non-European instru­ments… the list goes on.

Doineann is in itself a typ­ical UBS album — as far as such a thing exists — sum­mar­ising a few of the vari­ous musical approaches from the past few years: shorter folk-inspired songs with an elec­tric touch rub shoulders with instru­mental bits, improv ses­sions, and ambi­ent stretches.

The intro, “Helix” is short and instru­mental, set­ting the scene with cold piano twirl and a back­drop of per­cus­sion, flute, and trans­mit­ter crackles. On “Clay In My Hands”, Aine O’D­wyer (harp) and Paul Con­don (gui­tar, synths, vocals) do a dreamy waltz together. This is one of those typ­ical tracks that this whole art­icle is about: it’s folky and pas­toral in some ways, but at the same time it’s mod­ern and slightly ‘off’… unset­tling. The album seems pro­por­tioned for an LP release, per­haps, with each ‘side’ end­ing in long track. The title third, eponym­ous track “Doineann” is a slowly mov­ing instru­mental, fore­shad­ow­ing the final track with some motifs and instru­ment­a­tions, while adding a bit of an impro­vised jazzy dir­ec­tion to it as well.

The second half of the album starts with “The Blackened Fields”: Alison O’Don­nell on vocals with gui­tar by David Colo­han and some fur­ther syn­thes­izer back­ings. On “Sea­chránái”, Colo­han lends his own vocals over a del­ic­ate harp­si­chord-led piece. The crown­ing workof the album is “Halo”, a superbly dream-like 13 minutes closer that lives some­where in the clouds above the land­scapes we’ve been explor­ing in this piece. It is based in a warm syn­thes­izer and organ glow punc­tu­ated by auto­harp, elec­tric gui­tar, and Richard Moult’s reverb-drenched voice, which trans­itions into a glor­i­ous choral bit about halfway through. The rest of the track is a mel­an­cholic weight­less instru­mental, a drift­ing end to a beau­ti­ful album.

There are a couple of dif­fer­ent hand­made edi­tions of the album avail­able through AYITC, and you can also buy it digit­ally from the UBS band­camp.

Don’t for­get to check out the full A Year In The Coun­try blog; there’s tons of inter­est­ing stuff on there!