Freedom To Roam presents a widescreen soundscape encompassing folk, world and classical atmospheres covers most bases.
Release date: 26th November 2021
Label: GoatsKin Records
Sometimes, just sometimes, the motive behind works as worthy as this can seem more than the moment. Thankfully, this is not such, and is a largely uplifting and satisfying venture, even should the reason for its being pass you by. Which would be a huge shame, given the love and craft put into this.
So let me set the scene. Eliza Marshall is a flautist and possibly known in these circles as a member of Ranagri, the Anglo-Irish band, a three-piece, sometime four, who, along with her flutes and whistles, spin haunting songs with voice, guitar, harp and percussion. They also provided the backing for, shhh, the actually quite good Tony Christie record, The Great Irish Songbook, within which the Amarillo hitmaker explored his Irish roots. Classically trained, she has also many a film and soundtrack credit, as a soloist: Lord Of The Rings, The Great Gatsby, A Life On Our Planet, that’s her on the flute, that is.
Inspired, or maybe conspired, by Covid, her mind set to exploring the increasing barriers placed in the way of any sense of free migration. “Humanity and the animal kingdom are capable of making astounding journeys and sacrifices in a bid to find safety, freedom or greener grass.” Yet circumstances so often confound, deliberately or by default. That metaphor pervades even into the making of this recording, the eight main selected musicians having to learn to relate remotely and to weave their input into the whole in ways previously unconsidered. And, together, proving that remarkable capability.
These aren’t just any old musicians, mind, Marshall delving into her address book to find the wide-ranging selection who gift the project its many and varied voices. So we have Catrin Finch, equally at home with the classical harp as she is playing with Senegalese kora maestro, Seckou Keita, Kuljit Bhamra, the tabla king of UK Bhangra, and her Ranagri colleague, Dónal Rogers, on guitars, bass, piano and vocals. Add to these four of the country’s finest orchestral players, on violin (Jackie Shave), viola (Lydia Lowndes-Northcott), cello (Robert Irvine) and percussion (Joby Burgess), and perhaps you are beginning to get a flavour of what is likely to be included. There is also some additional input from producer, Andrew Marshall, on synth and percussion, with even more of the latter via the bodhran of Sam Kelly alumnus, Evan Carson. Is this classical music? Is it African, Celtic, Indian? If there were no borders we would need no such classifications. These 14 tracks set out to break those borders down, or to, at least, render them meaningless, each bleeding into the next, as one longer piece, a constancy rather than a separation.
Over a slow orchestral build, Awakenings offers just that, harp flickering in the background, as Marshall opens proceedings with some elegiac low whistle. The string section, acting simultaneously as the rhythm section and cross-contextual counterpoint, kick in, for the title track, with more overt percussive tones from tablas and bodhran. Flute and strings take the melodic lead and a real sense of rhythmic excitement is building. If you were to hit on a single segment, this would be the place to look, encompassing the general mood.
With different sections exploring different savours and different places, there are, variously, the mournful tones of Arctic Lament, sweeping cello and an appropriately icy harp movement. By contrast, further along, by way of a connecting Celtic lament, Turning Tides, on flute, with some majestic strings, underpinned by more consummate percussion, there comes the slowly rousing clarion call of Freedom. A repeating motif of piano is met by the distant keening vocal of Rogers, a joyous squall of electric guitar making its way up in the mix.
As a sucker for vibraphone, A Quiet Place uses that instrument as an always welcome bridge into the livelier Rain Coming. Evoking an arid African plain, and the relief of rainfall, this chattering movement captures the earth coming back to life, if still leaving the worry as to whether it will be enough. The sound of rainfall closes that and beckons in Green Shoots and Galaxies, a tabla-led tune of hope that becomes a celebration, handclaps emphasising that feel. A then very Eastern ambience seeps in for Leaving My Homeland, Indian-sounding strings winding around the theme. A short track, I would like this to have been taken further, but any such thought is swiftly dismissed by perhaps the most adventurous track here. Breaking away from the meticulous tidiness of the arrangements thus far, Brutal offers much as its name, a harsher and discordant battle between bansuri and keyboard, shards of the string section as jagged and disconcerting inserts. “There is nothing nice here“, says writer of this section, the violinist Jackie Shave, referring to the idea it is to express the horrors of trafficking and detention centres. Possibly so, but I love it, if not what it expresses.
Run Wild is then a joyous gambol into escape, a tang of the casbah to convey the anticipatory haste, the tune endeavouring to run away with itself. With Cherish comes a gentle acceptance of calm after the storm, harp and flute combining to offer hope, as more Indian-inflected strings singing nearby, the tabla not far behind. A slight pause, perhaps the longest offered thus far, and there is the Rogers penned Seekers, initially a rhythmic and chiming piano piece, containing a pastoral central reflection and ending on near bossa nova. This is a personal highpoint ahead of the closing curtain, again after a short gap, a reflection ahead of synopsis, piano and flute joined by subtle programmed beats, as the string section soars overhead. An altogether satisfactory way to close things down, as a canter into a faster speed brings in Finch’s cascading harp, before a wistful epilogue of ensemble playing leaves the stage bare, bar the percussionist, Burgess, ending things with a last-second flourish of hope.
I am mindful this is mood music, it that it probably requires the right mood to be able to engage with fully. Possibly not something to dip in and out of, the full immersion is likely the best way to capture the necessary ambience. Much as the classical world would surely wince at the comparison, my listening experience puts this very much into Mike Oldfield territory, or possibly even Midnight Mushrumps, the early Gryphon suite, and, if you similarly wince, my bad. Personally I see no harm with the comparisons. This is At The Barrier, after all, not BBC Music. If I were to be blunt, there are a few moments where it lulls, but, mostly, these are offset by the many moments of invigoration. The musicianship is exemplary, especially when the three string players wreak their individual and collective magic. Whilst the idea is all Marshall’s, full credit should go to the other composers as well, Finch, Shave and Rogers. If you want a wider grasp of the project, you could do worse than look at Virginia McKenna, yes that one, and her Born Free Foundation, she having championed this recording, which forms a triptych with an accompanying documentary and a celebratory launch concert, in support of McKenna’s work, on December 18th, details here.
Here is the taster commended, the title piece:
Eliza Marshall website
Born Free Foundation website