Liz Hanks – Land: Album Review

Debut album from cellist-to-the-stars Liz Hanks rediscovers the lost pastoralism of bygone Sheffield

Release Date:  2nd June 2023

Label: Hudson Records

Formats: CD, Vinyl, Limited Edition Green LP, Download, Streaming

Whenever I hear new music – and that’s a pretty regular occurrence, as you’d imagine – there’s always a couple of sounds that I listen out for.  I love the sound of a pedal steel guitar, and I’m always intrigued to discover the contexts into which an imaginative player can squeeze a few delicious licks.  The other sound that I always love to hear is the cello.  I love the versatility of the instrument, the way it can be used to add depth and sensibility to such a wide variety of musical styles, and I love the richness of its tones.  So when I was offered the opportunity to listen to Land, the debut album from cellist-to-the-stars, Liz Hanks, I jumped at the chance.

Chances are, you’ll have come across Liz Hanks.  Whether you are aware that you’ve done so is, of course, a different matter altogether, but if you’ve ever listened to any of Richard Hawley’s or Thea Gilmore’s work, well – that’s Liz on the cello.  She’s also worked with Kate Rusby, Martin Simpson and Jon Boden and, if that list isn’t impressive enough already, then how about Liam Gallagher, Paul Heaton and even Smokey Robinson?  At the moment, she’s working on projects with beatboxer Jason Singh and touring with sitarist Jasdeep Singh Degun.

And, a beautiful by-product of all that varied cultural exposure is that, like a soft honeycomb sea sponge, Liz has absorbed the full spectrum of influences and has set them to work in her own music.  And, for Land, that music was inspired after Liz read and studied a batch of written accounts, old photographs and paintings of the bygone valley of Rush Dale, an area now occupied by the Sheffield suburb of Meersbrook.  To bring those inspirations back to life, Liz has taken the various folk, minimalist, Indian classical and improvisatory influences to which she has been copiously exposed and mixed them with imagery of pre-industrial Sheffield.  And the result is something rather special…

Land is an album quite unlike anything else that you’re likely to hear this year.  Liz has composed a set of tunes that deal separately with the various features of the lost landscape of Rush Dale.  The streams, the footpaths – both existing and lost – the soil, the marshes and the meadows of the area all receive their dose of attention.  The march of industry into the area in the early nineteenth century, and the expansion of Sheffield from a small village into the bustling city of today are each the subject of lilting laments before Liz brings her musings to a close with Brier, a celebration of the landscape’s durability in the face of the neglect and intentional destruction that has been inflicted by humanity over the years.

Liz’s melodic contemplations are supplemented by a range of field recordings, taken by Liz’s ‘partner in crime,’ Alisdair McGregor.  The subject matter of the recordings has been thoughtfully selected and their inclusion adds genuine substance to each track.  So, for example, opening track Meer, the album’s lead single is accompanied by the sound of the brook – the boundary line between the Sheffield districts of Heeley, Meersbrook and Glealess and the former boundary between Yorkshire and Derbyshire – which gives the track its name.  The sound of distant traffic accompanies Ride, Liz’s reflection of the lost footpaths that once crisscrossed the Dale and which are now cover by concrete and tarmac, whilst the sound of birdsong provides the background Ley, a celebration of the meadow at the centre of the ancient and still-standing Carr Woods.  And so on.

I suppose that a love, or at least an appreciation of the sound of the cello is something of a pre-requisite for enjoying Land to its full potential, but, if that’s never been your forte, then perhaps Land is a good place to start developing that taste.  Liz is a true master of her craft and, over the ten tracks of the album, she squeezes, oozes and coaxes an amazing range of sounds and tones from her cello.  There’s lots of the deep, rich melodicism that even a layman like me would expect to hear, there are high tones and inconceivably deep tones, Liz bows, plucks and, on occasion, hits her strings to extract the sounds she needs and, invariably, the music evokes the images of that lost landscape that she is so eager to recreate.

Land is a cohesive piece of work and should be listened to as such.  Liz’s playing covers the whole gamut of emotion, from broodiness to exhilaration, as she paints her musical pictures, but, if pressed to pick out a couple of highlights from this splendid album, I suppose I would plump for Carr, Liz’s musical exploration of Carr Woods.  The tune is upbeat, folky and seems almost familiar, and, as the tune progresses, Liz gives full vent to the rich potential of her instrument.  Another real highlight is the pastoral Ley, in which Liz’s melody recalls the stirring of plant and animal life on a summer morning.

From my own point of view, my enjoyment of Land was enhanced by the fact that I’m a walker who takes great pleasure in exploring the various features of our landscape and I couldn’t help but appreciate the images being projected.  It helps, too, that I’m – at least slightly – familiar with the territory that Liz describes in her tunes.  And, to help any listener keen to become fully immersed in the world that Liz brings so vividly to life in these tunes, a fully immersive accompanying app has been available, which maps out a guided walk of the areas that inspired and are featured on the album.  The app’s GPS tracker blends the tracks as the route is followed, and there’s also a specially recorded commentary by Sheffield writer Sally Goldsmith.  And if that doesn’t urge you to get off your well-upholstered butt and put your walking boots on, then I don’t know what will!

Land is a novel, accomplished and highly evocative piece of work by a masterful musician.  It’s certainly more a labour of love than a commercial venture and Liz Hanks deserves huge credit for celebrating her adopted home city in such a beautiful way.

Listen to Meer, the album’s opening track and lead single, here:

Liz Hanks online: Website / Facebook / Twitter / Instagram / YouTube

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