On last year’s Solan Goose album, Erland Cooper effectively donated his own private soundtrack of Orkney for public consumption. In doing so he introduced us to the most wonderful North Sea birdlife, through music both deceptively simple and incredibly descriptive. So accurately did it achieve its objective, Solan Goose became the first of a triptych of key Orcadian elements.
The second part concerns the sea itself – which is where Sule Skerry comes in. Named after a remote lighthouse station, it has a particularly difficult brief to fulfil, the grace and power of the ocean fascinating yet elusive. Where Solan Goose took you to flight, soaring above the breakers, this album dives headlong into them, from the lapping tide in the harbour to the full, exhilarating force of a wave in the face. With expertly judged musical signposts we move from the front room of a fisherman’s cottage, with vivid reminiscences of life on the boats, right into the boat itself and the teeth of a storm.
With us along the way are Cooper’s musicians. Leo Abrahams returns on studied guitar, while Lottie Greenhow’s crystal clear soprano continues to enchant. String players Anna Phoebe, Jacob Downs and Klara Schumann are characterful additions, Schumann’s cello becoming the soulful voice of the sea, allowing the listener to effect their own visions and words while listening to the instruments moving against the waves. To one song, First Of The Tide, Cooper adds his own vocal to Benge’s dappled analogue synths. Here we stand poised in sleepy wonder at the start of a new day, moving from fitful sleep to wakefulness in the ever present company of the sea. The descriptive keyboard lines describe the light dancing softly on the waves as they lap the shore, hypnotic and enchanting.
While we enjoy the edges of the sea the album always feels bound for big moments of raw, elemental power. Flattie is a deeply felt homage to the force of the waves, a response to poetry by Will Burns (read by Kris Drever and Kathryn Joseph) before the inexorable build of the tide. Then, suspended in the act of breaking, the wave cuts to some beautiful field recordings from Hiroshi Ebina, the sonic beauty of wind chimes and strings blended in pure stillness. The brilliantly named Lump O’Sea, meanwhile, takes the listener out to sea and rushes headlong for the surface. Heard on headphones it is an exhilarating, full-on experience with the elements.
The fluid keyboard arpeggios of Spoot Ebb, with Greenhow’s soprano, are beautifully intertwined, while another voice, Astra Forward, combines Ebina’s recordings on the closing title track, a mixture of vulnerability and awe at the power of the sea, while giving the surety and comfort in its very existence.
Once again Erland Cooper takes us into the great outdoors and right into the thick of the natural action, marshalling the forces in his studio with great dexterity to do so. There is a lot going on here but it is carefully assembled with the bigger picture in mind, and gives the keenest possible description of the never-ending buffeting the North Sea gives to Orkney’s coast. More restless than Solan Goose, Sule Skerry is always on the move, constantly changing but all the more exciting and compelling for it.