Archie Churchill-Moss – PH(R)ASE: Album Review

Top squeezer Archie Churchill-Moss goes solo on a largely off-piste black run.

Release Date: 13th January 2023

Label: Slow Worm

Format: CD/digital

Am I odd, rhetorical, so no answer needed, but for me, there is little more joyous than the sound and vision of a squeezebox pumping away, with the button-led glory of the melodeon the king of them all. The visceral thrill of the sound, whether solo or in the mix of a full folk rock ensemble has never ceased to goose my bumps, and there are few sights I delight more to than of the peculiar calisthenic of a player on his feet. From John Kirkpatrick’s days with the Richard Thompson band, John Jones in Oysterband through to Simon Care in E11, the awkward stance, knees buckling and bending, in a St Vitus dance of absorption to the cadences of the tune, always will you find me with a smile, with my own trusty air melodeon to the fore.

(Churchill-)Moss has been the boy to watch for some time, first drawing acclaim in the Jim Moray/Sam Carter ensemble, False Lights, as well as in his trio with Tom Moore and Jack Rutter, now slimmed down into the more experimental and hauntological duo, just he and Tom Moore’s violin. Don’t get me wrong, I am also in awe of those who play on a chair, the Cuttings and Daniels of this world, but, for me, as with guitarists, I like to see ’em stand. (Let’s conveniently ignore the clip below and that also, when I saw them, Moore Moss Rutter were each seated, something I then blamed on the economies of scale demanded by the size of the stage. (And which is a likely nonsense, but nonetheless….)

This album is his first solo release, initially prepped for release at the tail end of last year. A prudent delay, I feel, so as allow due judgement for 2023 ‘best of’ lists, and immediately I am caught out, finding he is rather a player of the diatonic button accordion, my hands duly rapped. (Ed: I think you’ll find it’s the same thing!) And not any old diatonic button accordion, this a custom-made jobbie, bespoke to his needs and design, with three rows on the right, and eighteen bass on the left. This expands and extends the available soundscape, minding me of Kathryn Tickell’s similarly personalised Northumbrian pipes, both players thus able to leave others agog as to their ranges. Like most box players, Moss is largely versed in dance music, especially those from the English and French repertoires. This selection of tunes are all of his own composition, written over his years as an artist. Undoubtedly doffing a cap to those traditions, this is dance music, but with a deeper undercurrent of complexity, stretching the harmonic and melodic limits that are usually attached to such styles. In his own words, to “explore the various tonal centres the accordion is capable of navigating.” Neither, by the way, is he just content to give just aural pleasure to listeners, and dancers, for some time he has also been putting his talents out for those keen to learn, and, should you find yourself a student at Leeds Conservatoire, on the Folk degree, he is a senior lecturer on the course.

Why Ph(r)ase I am uncertain, other than a neat play on the two words, perhaps to articulate the thought behind the processes applied in the composition. Put together, over four days in spring last year, live and without overdub or manipulation, the mixing and engineering comes courtesy his old mucker, Tom Moore. Skipping off with Searching For Space/Cecil’s Dream, there is an almost bluesy progression in the first Gallic-sounding tune, the swells courtesy his left hand immediately marking out his play from the competition. Were this a bal, it would be a slowly cerebral dance, and already my neurones are jigging gently, the tunes continuing with a slower syncopation that would perplex my feet, not that the chance to try wouldn’t exhilarate. The puffs of expelled air between phrases, as it ends, and from the box, I assume, rather than Moss, add no little amount to the overall effect. Barely a pause and it’s Kingweston Spire, with a steadily regimental metronomic bassline, which allows Moss to circulate both the tune and the pace with his other hand. Again, despite the obvious heritage of a traditional basis, I can hear hints of prog keyboard here, Emerson and Lord, questioning how this might sound, if played on a Hammond. The tune segues into the more European Inside The Wires, and the merge is seamless. T’riffic stuff, which continues with Odi And Nancy, a weaved tangle of melody which ebbs and flows with a hop and a step this listener was finding difficult to avoid. Am I allowed a favourite already?

Character Of Mind/For Karin are another well-matched pair, beginning with a fusillade of notes that challenge the cortex with the not quite repetition. Another sigh of expressed air, and the speed slows into a wryly mournful jaunt. As you concentrate on each hand at a time, the sense is that the metre is just a little more complex than straight 4:4 is appreciated. The whole tone of the instrument then changes for A Romantic Image, an almost baroque air creeping into another tune that could transfer to organ, if this time the full-ranked pipes of a church organ. But with enough touch of Dr Phibes to keep it interesting. A thoughtful and thought-provoking tune, this the closest in comparison to his duo work with Moore, Spectres. Deepen Or Dissolve, the second part, seems to do just that, taking perhaps the lowest note on the box to then float off into melancholy musing. School Of Brock/Open At Home dismisses such whimsy with a sparkly call to be upright, the feel of a circular dance, hand in hand, all revolving, first fairly fast and then, as is the way, faster still, for the more rhythmic second half.

Quite which Great Western Road is being addressed by the tune of that name. As he is a Somerset lad, I’ll assume Bristol, tempted also to think of the older by far Great Western Way, likewise to Bristol if down far older thoroughfares. Or maybe that is the point, to accentuate more the modern, the piece being of geometric precison, as it wends in an around the theme, sticking closely to the template. As it swaps into First Of March, it gathers up Moss’s taste for melody, and the feel, as it slows to an end, the sort of tune Garth Hudson used to slip into his soloing. A clever pair of tunes, technique and soul, separately yet entwined. Another change in mood for the spiky Room 410/Maria, the first part full of unexpected turns and twists, yet remaining something you can still hum along with, more so for the swirlier second half that follows. The catchiest tune here, possibly.

Who Owns The Land/The Entomologist has a serious feel about it, befitting the question, yet with sufficient flourishes to enjoy the asking. (The land owns us, is, I think, the answer.) Nearly getting lost in tangled fingers, it draws back into a slightly Celtic feel for the paired partner, if with the structure still quite devious, maybe reflecting the turmoil of an insect’s life-cycle. Entymology, right? In which case, the closing butterfly bars are apt. Finally, and to close, we get Enhanced By Height/The Pace Of Everyone, starting as a slowly sonorous air, back with that church organ feel, and this could come from any medieval tunebook, a pleasing place to be and to end, the natural pause between the parts allowing the second tune start on a more questioning moment, as it surely picks up speed, becoming more sure-footed, with, finally, the player/listener standing, stock still, for the final note.

Moss has stated he wants this to be recognised as a danceable record, and, whilst I get that and can see that, I confess it would be a brave ceilidheer choosing to navigate some of the steps offered here, suspecting, really, that this more dance music for the mind, maybe with headphones on, or in the car. (To be fair, the latter is where I listen to most of my dance music anyway.) Certainly, the instrument has been taken to its limit and Moss thrashes out some remarkable life from it. Probably one for the specialist over the hardcore dance fiends at Sidmouth, Shrewsbury and the like, but, for anyone who wants a different side of the tradition, it might just be what you need. As well as the straight no chaser CD or download, it also comes with the option of a disc, with all the necessary sheet music included.

Here’s Great Western Road/First Of March:

Archie Churchill-Moss online: Website / Facebook / Instagram / Bandcamp

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