Kathryn Tickell & The Darkening – Cloud Horizon : Album Review

‘Ancient Northumbrian Futurism’ : delivers what it says on the tin.

Release Date: 1st September 2023

Label: Resilient Records

Format: CD / digital

Wait ’til you see our new direction” might not sound words of reassurance from someone so steeped in the tradition as Kathryn Tickell. Not least, in part, as her career has included and evolved through so many already, if never, praise be, losing the stark and gaunt beauty of her acclaimed Northumbrian pipes.

So we have had her in solo splendour, in acoustic duos, trios and more, in collaborations embracing classical and jazz, leading various bands, from the eponymous, through chamber folk classical fusioneers, The Side and now, second set in, The Darkening. Now if Darkening version one were broadly folk rock, in the received sense anyway, certainly in the live setting, this is not quite that beast at all. It’s true, 2019’s Hollowbone revealed broad hints of future direction, tapping into worlds of ambient music and trip-hop, now comes a full on embracing of studio trickery, electronic beats and swathes of synth, all surrounding the core of wood, reed and bellows that remain the heart of the band. For this is very much a band project.

Despite the 4 year gap, this remains very much the same band, with Tickell on pipes and fiddle, omnipresent Tickell sideswoman, Amy Thatcher, on accordion and Kieran Szifris on octave mandolin, with the mighty thump of drummer, Joe Truswell also retained. (And, as is the way, responsible for much the live programming.) No Kate Young this time, but additional instrumental heft is supplied by Stef Conner’s lyre and sistrum and the clarsach of Josie Duncan. All four women, guests included, sing, their individual and collective voices one of the primal joys of this record. (Sistrum? An ancient Egyptian shaker that adds eerie jangly clanking to the atmosphere.)

The bubbling High Way To Hermitage kicks things off, opening with a rolling is it real or is it electronic ripple from combined strings and synth, which builds and adds briskly ahead of the joyous entry of the pipes. An instant feelgood hit, as the two main layers dance through near five minutes of celebration. As the drums dip in and out in clattering cacophony, you can’t help but feel uplifted. Thatcher’s accordion picks up the main melody, and the background becomes distinctly prog, the strings near mellotronic. After that exemplary start, some moody electronic percussion and slow moaning pipes welcome in the warm honeyed tones of Duncan for Long For Light. ‘Downtempo trance’ it says here and that wouldn’t be far wrong, the contrast between the backbeat and the shared vocal refrain, as the song develops, is enticing.

A song in Latin, right? Seemingly from an inscription found on a Roman Fort excavation, part of Hadrian’s Wall, Caelestis/Sheep In The Temple starts with Conner and Thatcher sharing the singing, it certainly sounds very old and mysterious, their eerie vocalisations crosscut with the shimmer of the sistrum and lyre. All very wyrd, before Tickell launches into a casbah melody over thrashed percussion. Returning to the initial pace it is certainly different, some powerchorded drones adding to the eventual mystery. Quilley Reels restores momentum, a lively fiddle tune, under which the rhythm section lay down a dancing acceleratory beat. The mix of instrumentation seems to give a brass effect, which is appealing, having me see The Darkening Big Band as something to be considered for the future. Of course,, it all goes a bit bonkers in the middle, ahead dragging your feet back to the original ceilidh. Freedom Bird then slows and strips down, plucked strings and a drawn out drone setting a mood. The song, when it starts, is very sweet, with a delicate melody, harmony vocals invoking a fireside session, drawing memories of songbirds into a frosty evening. The clarsach is simply beautiful, piling on the pathos.

Just Stop & Eat The Roses is up next. Yes, eat the roses, and it is actually a pair of tunes, rather than, necessarily, an instruction. Pipes are to the fore, Tickell’s dextrousness of fingers, as the notes cascade, in partnership with Thatcher’s accordion, is a delight. The background offers more of the proggy overtones suggested earlier, with wah-wah mandolin at the close. Bone Music is another sidestep, a song of some substance, lyrically extolling the link between home and heart, and how the one defines the other. The repeated line: “the song of sea and sky and bird” reeks of Northumbria, even if the song is more how you take your home with you, wherever you may be, if defined, I guess, by a mix of heritage and birth. But it is the tune that lingers, as the singers take turn to take a verse, coming together as the percussion draws in, evoking both a beating heart and the called upon old Gods. I’m presuming it is Tickell on whistle herself, even one hewn from birdbone, as detailed within the song.

If Clogstravaganza’s title has you fearfully recalling Violinski, don’t scream. Or not too loud, as, yes, it is, a bit, a fiddle led piece that allows Thatcher to show off her second talent, the clogs. Possibly one more for the live show, but it is a bit of fun, and her feet certainly ape many a mid 70’s percussionist. Gods Of War adds a smidgeon of doomcore and deathmetal to the mix, spooky whispered vocals chanting over a heavy drumbeat. Fiddle dips and out, and it is more a sensation than a song, with more power chords punctuating the ritual. Not really what you expect from a band of folkies; it’s actually quite good.

Moaña is a Galician town, thus, as you might expect, One Night In Moaña is resplendent with the styles of that most southern of the Celtic countries. With Tickell’s smallpipes coming on all gaita, there are additional guests adding various unpronounceable instruments of the region, along with shells for percussion. It gambols along merrily and is perhaps the most accessible track for those who haven’t kept up with Tickell’s ever changing moods. That is until the vocal interplay segment, which drags us back to this album. It’s a grand amalgam. Which is a lively way to usher in the slow mournful air, Back To The Rede, that closes this album. Over possibly lyre, Tickell bows a sombre air, in turn taken up by Thatcher’s accordion, before Tickell returns, this time on the pipes. If it has a peculiarly scottish feel to it, remember how her beloved Northumberland has long been part of the debateable lands, itself the title of an earlier Tickell album, with the border swapping up and down over the centuries. (Personally, and probably primarily through the pipes, I always prefer to think of the county being in Scotland, and the people to be Celts.) The tune of the album, to some extent it stands apart, but, irrespective, it only helps to raise the standard of a strikingly bold creation, one further loop in the road that Tickell has been taking these past 4 decades, a year shy of the 40th anniversary of her debut release, On Kielder Side. Ancient Northumbrian futurism? I should cocoa!

Here’s track two, Long For Light, notable also for showing quite what an octave mandolin looks like!

Kathryn Tickell online: website / facebook / twitter / Instagram

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