Intriguing, genre-spanning debut from London chamber ensemble showcases seamlessly blended opposing sounds and balances beauty with tension
The debut album by London eight-piece caroline has been a long time in the making. The ensemble first started to play together in early 2017 then slowly began to expand in terms of personnel and instrumentation before reaching their current incarnation. The first music to appear from these sessions arrived in 2020 with the release of the single Dark Blue and 2021 brought two more tracks, Skydiving Onto The Library Roof and IWR, both of which also appear on their eponymous debut album. The slow drip of new music ahead of an album launch is fairly standard practice these days and, while there can be drawbacks to doing this, it did somehow seem apt in the case of caroline.
This view rests on consideration of certain key aspects of their music, namely the patient, slow, methodical way that many of the pieces unfurl, not to mention the sense of mystery and otherness that permeates their sound. By releasing singles in a similarly spaced-out manner it encouraged these perceptions to grow and, now that the album has arrived, receive validation in the free, exploratory feel that runs through the album.
Dark Blue quickly confirms how they exist at the intersection between post-rock, modern classical and outsider alt-folk but also shows how trying to categorise them underplays the broader value of their music. It also provides the first glimpse of how Magdalena McLean and Oliver Hamilton can supply violin embellishment that wails beautifully in a style not dissimilar to Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds member and Dirty Three frontman Warren Ellis (high praise, indeed).
The longer that is spent with the album, the feeling grows that it is the inclusion of the vocals from Jasper Llewellyn and Mike O’Malley that set them apart from other acts loosely associated with the aforementioned genres. Good Morning (Red) extends this view, helping to establish a pastoral and idyllic feeling that periodically gives way to another central aspect to their sound, namely unpredictability. The periodic interruptions of strongly delivered vocals from the background also reflect the improvisatory spirit found in much of their music.
Later, Skydiving Onto The Library Roof reinforces these free-flowing credentials. They recently played a six hour set at London’s Queen Elizabeth Hall that featured collaborations with members of Black Midi among others and, while they don’t really easily fit into any scene, moments like this, in particular the part where it sounds like a chamber ensemble falling down a flight of stairs, do suggest certain shared outlooks.
Similar discordant deconstructions appear on Engine (Eavesdropping) while Zilch features some more tangled, gnarled arrangements, but this time fleetingly so. Natural Death offers a suitably obtuse closing, at times like the audio equivalent of chopping your way through dense undergrowth (but, of course, very much in a good sense). Yet for all these noisier moments, tracks like Desperately and IWR sit at the other end of the spectrum, striking a more consonant, conciliatory tone. It’s this ability to seamlessly blend opposing sounds and balance beauty with tension that makes for such an intriguing album, and very much confirms the old adage that good things are worth waiting for.