Striking new music from Shetland shield maiden Astrid Williamson stamps a retro footprint in the future.
Release date: 18th February 2022
Label: Incarnation Records
Format: CD / Digital
Even the name can sound a little icy, with the knowledge she hails from Shetland adding to that lustre. That her vocal style is often described as haunting should come as little surprise. Spooky might be more apt, a chill blast from the north. Time to put on a warm jumper and hunker down. Occupying that same parallel universe where Lisa Gerrard (Dead Can Dance) and Elizabeth Fraser (Cocteau Twins, This Mortal Coil) are the touchstones, Williamson too has the grounding of earthier artists like Tori Amos and Polly Harvey. Intrigued?
No newcomer, this is her ninth solo recording, following on from her mid-90s work as part of the all but overlooked Scottish trio, Goya Dress, whose John Cale helmed 1996 record Rooms is well worth seeking out. The inspiration for this project was the past, or, more specifically, the notebooks she kept whilst on tour with Dean Can Dance, as a member of that band, over 2012/3, jottings she rediscovered only recently: “Part letters to a lover, or perhaps hoped for lover, part travelogue from the life of a touring musician”. This spark triggered the rapid development of ten piano based songs. From these seeds came forth this album, seven of the tracks here germinating directly from that flourish of creativity, each painstakingly remodelled and refashioned over the last four years, in different sites and settings, picking up additional musicians along the way, both remotely and serendipitously. Vocals were laid down in Australia, the rhythm section added in, of all places, Eastbourne. Other musical additions were recorded and flown in from California and France, before Williamson herself, with producer Andy Glen, sound brushed it all together with additional guitars and keyboards.
An ominous echoed clang of guitar introduces the opening track, Coming Up For Air, with a swoop in of strings, real and synthesised, allying themselves to a metronomic thud of bass and drums, together conjoining with her detached vocal, echoed and emphatic, with a slight crack to offer the humanity. The song builds, guitars chiming about a background drone of effects. A striking start that draws the listener in immediately. In Gratitude is a piano ballad that might invite the Amos comparisons, but there is more to it than that, her lower tones and the progression putting me in mind of the moodier end of Shakespear’s Sister. The song builds and builds, a minor key epic, soaring over a wall of sounds. That mood is maintained into the passive aggression of Eat, electronic thuds like the heavy footfall of a marauding predator. Is this alt-folk? Or post-goth? Or post-folk alt-goth, even? Who cares, I’m loving it.
June Bug gradually unfolds over a repeated piano motif, a tone poem that almost could be Patti Smith, ahead of majestic swathes of strings cascading in, a slo-mo ceremony of intent, chimes of piano adding emphasis. Gaunt and minimalistic, this is a jaw-dropping marriage of sound and structure. Also based on repetitive piano, Body has handclaps and a brooding bass skirt around her vocal, ahead the pace suddenly lifting, an orchestrated chase sequence, the dynamic redolent of unfolding paranoia. Some instrumental solace is granted in the elegiac For Henry, just piano and the violin of Ruth Gottlieb, last heard with Tindersticks, the gravitas here similar to the mood that band can give. Not for the first time, the music conjures up images, calm between the storms, belying Williamson’s soundtrack experience.
A bubbling synth underpins the narrative of Prague, and it is all very Midnight Express, all the more so as the guitar and rhythm section slot in, a motorik beauty. “Tomorrow I will be in Prague“, so who is to say she isn’t heading west? Further west still is the island of Corsica, the track of that name adorned with rich keyboard tones, the sort that could easily embed a Corsican polyphony, but instead this becomes a doomy, angsty song of foreboding, the sort of heartache that could inhabit any dream home. Oo ee oo, without a change in mood this could get dark….
Thankfully, that mood change manifests, the spoken word of Gun, the narrative over strummed guitar, an airy tone at pains with the subject matter, encompassing death and loss, breaking into a plea for, I think, hope, an uplifting sung coda, the drums a reassuring thud as the strings dance in the sky. Then, and finally, with portentous rumbles of piano, the closing track, There Are No Words, acts almost as an epitaph, an afterthought to bring together the myriad moods of this immersive record, leaving the listener with uncertainty rather than closure.
You’ll have gathered this is no lightweight exercise. But that certainly does not render it impenetrable, it all hanging together pleasingly and provocatively. Will it change the world? Probably not, but it could change yours, at least for the duration you lie within the cocoon it offers. A new way of songwriting for her, she says, and it is one that leaves a satisfying outcome, asking for more. And, whilst it is her voice and her playing that is the core; she plays the guitars, the keyboards and arranges most the strings, credit too must be given to the chosen added musicians, especially the drums of Martyn Barker (Shriekback) and the bass of her longtime collaborator, Richard Yale.
Here’s the opening track, Coming Up For Air: