The idea of a 21-strong, all-female choir performing slightly off kilter songs is likely to trigger one of a couple of responses. The first is one of intrigue; the second is one of dismissal. On paper, the very concept of Gaggle sounds like something that a community group might have come up with in order to appear on Blue Peter, or at the very least secure some kind of community grant from the local council. There are moments when such an assessment is not too far from sounding accurate, but for the most part this is an album that transcends the novelty of the group that created it.
Formed back in 2008 by Deborah Coughlin, Gaggle has slowly been creating something of a stir on the live circuit, and From The Mouth Of The Cave represents their first full length album since their inception. Strangely the opening title track doesn’t initially sound like a choral piece at all, and this is something of a blessing. Instead, unnerving percussion, mournful organ motifs, the sound of computers failing and a haunting wind define the song more than the vocals could hope to. It’s perhaps this willingness to refrain from bombarding the album with vocals constantly that serves Gaggle well. They understand that subtlety is more important than shock and awe tactics.
Recent single Army Of Birds changes tack somewhat and heads towards similar territory to that of Malcolm Mclaren’s Buffalo Girls, or Le Tigre’s occasional school yard hip hop. Here the choir take centre stage, and their dexterity with rhythm and tone comes impressively to the fore.The Power Of Money follows and continues to mine a similar early hip hop vibe to Army Of Birds whilst discussing the state of the economy in pretty basic terms. Regardless of lyrical prowess, the tumbling nature of the vocal arrangements is nonetheless impressive and it’s a trick that Gaggle pulls off with varying degrees of success throughout the album.
Sometimes there are a few too many ideas thrown into the mix for comfort. Gaslight for example contains some interesting forays into noise, drum and bass, and call and response but somehow manages to end up sounding like an ungodly shrieking mess. It sounds like it might be a lot of fun to perform, but from the point of view of the audience it’s all a bit too much. Elsewhere Gaggle get the mix about right. Liar for example comes across as a threatening playground “in the round” tune that should make unfaithful men quite uncomfortable. On similar prickly ground is Crows which mixes up a Caribbean swagger and with unhinged laughing to conjure up something that might not sound out of place in The Wicker Man. Following Crows is Lullaby, which should probably come as something of a relief, but with Gaggle singing in threatening tones over a tinkling musical box and occasional swells of bass it feels more like a murder ballad. Hello Spider appears to return things to slightly safer territory with its piano and strings accompaniment. Initially it sounds not unlike the culmination of a West End musical but just below the surface there are mentions of feverish prayers and tombstones. It’s a finely executed piece that shifts expectations deftly and is probably the finest moment on the album.
Ultimately From The Mouth Of The Cave is an occasionally frustrating listen. It can be a bit too messy for its own good, and sometimes the arrangements drift too close to the territory of the musical for comfort, but when they hit the mark (Army Of Birds, Hello Spider) Gaggle can be quite life affirming.