You can never accuse the Brewis brothers of Field Music of being lazy – they’re always up to something. In this case, the score to a documentary made by the man who coined the term ‘documentary’, the Scottish filmmaker John Grierson.
The film, Drifters, follows a working day of a herring fishing fleet as they sail from the Shetland Islands to the North Sea fishing grounds. It was originally premiered in 1929 and even appeared alongside Sergei Eisenstein’s masterpiece (for many the greatest film of all time), Battleship Potemkin.
For Music For Drifters, the original Field Music line-up is reunited, with keyboardist Andrew Moore and the band’s regular live bassist Andrew Lowther appearing. According to David Brewis, the score was something that came quite natural to them, thanks to their North East roots: “It was quite easy to imagine the harbour scenes happening down by the river in Sunderland or in Whitby or Alnmouth or Berwick.”
Surprisingly, despite the Brewis’ rather eclectic repertoire and willingness to venture into various pastures, this is the first time they’ve ever attempted producing a score for a film. You’d expect this to have happened by now. Not that that’s a complaint, mind. The problem with listening to a film score is that you feel you should judge it in tandem with the film in order to judge the score’s suitability and overall mood (Grierson’s film can be found here). Indeed, for some scores, judging them on their own merit would have been something of a disadvantage.
Still, not so here: Music For Drifters easily stands up on its own, regardless of the film itself. Opener Village contrasts the potential raucous, unforgiving nature of the ocean by bringing a sort of languid, Steely Dan feel through its ’70s-style keyboards: you gain a sense of somewhere that is taking life at a gentle, unassuming sort of pace – drifting, so to speak, although nowadays that word has something of a negative connotation to it.
Towards the end of Village, you hear clashes of cymbal and toms before going straight into the 46-second Engine, with that atypical Field Music fusion of funkesque bass, distinctively pitched guitar and keyboards all coming together to no doubt mirror the starting of the boat’s engine. This then veers into the 44-second Out Of The Harbour which is serene, jangly and somewhat wistful: you can picture some stood on shore, watching the fleet sail out to sea (although that doesn’t happen in the film but let’s not spoil the imagery).
The linear nature of the score means that even without seeing the film, one can at least create their own narrative. The 40-second Casting Out Part 1 creates a degree of tension, before While Down Below clashes together a sense of serenity with the sea’s unpredictability and abruptness. Casting Out Pts 2 and 3, at almost four minutes, carries on where Part 1 left off, but then half-way through it suddenly judders into a sort of mechanical rhythm and then drifts into the peaceful Night Time. Here, the fleet rest for the night.
Hauling creates a sort of ominous tension, expressed again through characteristic Field Music bass and subtle finger-picked electric guitar. This is then increased further in The Storm Gathers, which veers from placid into menacing via haunting keys that build throughout.
Yet it never feels too much: there’s a level-headedness to it, perhaps emphasising the fleet’s experience. There’s danger, yet it also feels like the situation is under control. This is exemplified with The Ships Ride Through, which brings about an almost relaxed state of calm. Even after only seeing brief moments of Grierson’s documentary, you can allow the music to run away with itself in your mind. The music is strikingly evocative.
There’s always something about Field Music that wipes any sort of cynicism about modern music away. Something cleansing, refreshing and captivating, much like a dip in the sea. Once again, they’ve managed it here.