Vivid evocations of seasonal light states, nature, traditional rituals and more – from Mel Biggs, a master of her craft
Release Date: 1st October 2021
Label: Talking Cat Recordings
Formats: CD / Digital
From Darkness Comes Light is, quite probably, the most vividly evocative set of tunes that I’ve ever had the pleasure of hearing. The album’s twelve tracks span a year of moods and impressions set to music, covering such topics as the light shining through the canopy of a wood in early spring, dreams of joining the birds in their nest-building activities, participation in the Mayday morris rituals, and reveling in the cold, clean air of the Norwegian mountains. Mel Biggs is a masterful melodeonist and, in her hands, the tunes on From Darkness Comes Light spring to life in such a way that it’s almost possible to touch, hear and smell the subject matter that inspired the music.
Close observers of the British folk scene may well recognize the name of Mel Biggs. A musician, performer and melodeon teacher based in Derbyshire, she’s also a member of Anglo-European trio Moirai and a musician with Harlequin Morris. She’s also a keen visual artist and photographer who works with the Stroke Association UK, providing therapeutic ‘free drawing’ art workshops for stroke survivors. Her skill on the melodeon has not gone unnoticed, and she’s attracted generous plaudits from fellow squeeze boxers, including the likes of Simon Care, Andy Cutting and Annie Whitehead. Indeed, when he heard an advance copy of From Darkness Comes Light, Simon Care was moved to remark “It is a rare privilege to hear a musical creation as stunning as this.” A sentiment with which I fully agree.
From Darkness Comes Light is Mel’s solo debut and it’s a concept that has been brewing for a long time – about 15 years in fact. Described as “…a deeply personal, tangible world of sound and light [that creates] an immersive, almost cinematic sensory experience,” the tunes see Mel stepping out boldly in her own direction, shining a bright and positive light into the murky shadows of mental health. In her own words, she uses the tunes to narrate a visual (be it memory feeling or place) in order to add depth and intrigue to [her] arrangements. And that’s a device that works fantastically well.
Mel is accompanied by a few friends on From Darkness Comes Light – Kat Biggs on piano accordion, Jon Loomes on guitar and cittern, Bridget Slater on fiddle and David Sqirrell on mandolin and octave mandola. The backing is light-touch and sympathetic and leaves Mel with the space she needs to stretch out and show us just what a melodeon can do. The result is a collection of joyous, optimistic tunes, all expertly played, and a remarkably intimate sound – I particularly enjoy how you can hear the air exhausting from the bellows of Mel’s melodeon whenever she operates the air button – a small detail that helps convince the listener that Mel is playing for them alone.
To get the best benefit from From Darkness Comes Light, the album should be heard as a cohesive work, for it is under such a circumstance that the contrasting images and emotions evoked by the music can be best appreciated. The album kicks off with A New Day Dawns, a fantastically clear image of a sleeper, awakening to the rising sun; the band take their places for the lively Dream Big, before we venture into that spring woodland in Shivelight in Spring, a tune that brings the sounds and aromas of the sprouting buds right into your room.
The dawn rituals of the morris team on Mayday morning celebrated in Mounthills/Coleford Jig, a melodeon and fiddle tune that is as bright and lively as you’d expect and is the only non-original composition on the album. We then move on to consider views of the world from high vantage points – firstly in the interesting voice-harmony collage High Places (inspired by Mel’s childhood desire to join the birds as they constructed their nests in the eaves of her childhood home), and then from the summit of the Norwegian mountains in the excellent Oppland Upland. Inspired by a visit to a friend’s cabin, Oppland Upland has a true Scandinavian feel, strong enough to bring the images of the mountain scenery, the snow and the cold air almost to life.
Shimmer is a meandering, lazy tune, redolent of the heat haze on a warm summer’s day and Long Shadows is a short piece, written in honour of the long ‘super’ shadows that we cast on Autumn days. The stalking and the darting hunting habits of cats provide the inspiration for the skittish Catching Flies; another evocative tune that conveys a wonderfully clear image of the cat’s wide eyes and the rapid movement of his head as he watches and stalks his prey.
A blustery day on the Malvern Hills was the inspiration for Winter Weather Warning, a vibrant tune that, like the wind on the hills, blows hither, thither and everywhere else; in contrast, Silver Lining – a tune that reflects on the mundanity of everyday living, yet encourages the listener to seek out the silver lining that’s always there if you take the trouble to look for it – is slow and ponderous with an undercurrent of optimism that works its way to the surface as the tune progresses.
The album is brought to a close by the bittersweet Katy’s Theme. Jolly in places, the tune has a wistful edge to it that perfectly captures Mel’s sentiments for the tune: “This piece has lived with me the longest and came to me during my darkest time. I received the main melody in a neatly formed package along with its name. I thought at first that Katy was an invisible friend – someone who was watching over me. Since then, the piece has been added to and reworked over time, just like me. As I reflect on what this piece means to me now, I realise Katy has become my aspirational alter-ego. Whilst I’m in no way the finished article, she is all the things I struggle to embrace in myself: Katy is confident, Katy speaks up for herself, Katy takes no crap. Be more Katy. This track is a statement of where I am now, where I’ve come from, but most importantly, where I’m going next…
And that, ladies and gentlemen, is as good a summary as any of the motivation for producing this remarkable album. Recommended for lovers of trad-based, thoughtfully composed folk music everywhere!!
By the way – if this review has whetted your appetite for Mel’s melodeon mastery, you might be interested in tuning in to her launch concert on 16th October, which will be broadcast via LIVE TO YOUR LIVING ROOM and is accessible here: https://livetoyourlivingroom.com/. Also, Mel and Kat will be performing at the Wren Music Festival in Okehampton, Devon on 22nd-24th October. Details are available here.
Watch Mel play Catching Flies – a track from the album – here: