Firefly Burning will be a new name to many, but those lucky enough to see some of their early performances as Firefly (particularly at Sam Lee’s Nest Collective gigs in London) will no doubt view Skeleton Hill as long awaited. Three years since the band’s debut album Lightships and some two years after it was recorded, Skeleton Hill is finally seeing the light of day, to some much deserved attention. Part of this is because of the input of producer Tim Friese-Greene (Talk Talk, Heligoland) but it is also due to the imaginative, original hybrid sound that this exciting band concoct.
Anyone expecting Friese-Greene to have magically transformed Firefly Burning into a new version of Talk Talk may well be disappointed. There is, satisfyingly, a similar attention to detail, although Firefly Burning embrace a somewhat different take on minimalism. There is some polyrhythm and phasing perhaps inspired by Steve Reich (employed in a similar manner to Sufjan Stevens’ arrangements on Come On Feel The Illinoise) – but there is also a great deal of intricacy and complexity at work here, from sudden shifts in tempo to unusual time signatures.
Based in East London, Firefly Burning are a five piece ensemble with versatile musical backgrounds, including in the field of free improvisation. Perhaps as a result of this, there is a freewheeling anything goes approach to arrangement here that can see any one individual song drawing inspiration from folk song, gamelan, chamber music and jazz. The artist that most springs to mind as a reference point when listening to Skeleton Hill, in part because of Bea Hankey’s mellifluous voice, is New York singer-songwriter Becca Stevens, who similarly embraces rich, intricate harmony and rhythmic adventure.
Firefly Burning’s unusual sound comes in part from their relatively unconventional line-up, with Sam Glazer on cello (among the most versatile of instruments) and James Redwood on violin providing a string section as interested in percussive textures as in lush, melodic lines. Then there’s the crucial presence of John Barber on piano, who deftly incorporates much of the Reich influences. The superbly conceived vocal harmonies, particularly on the opening Unwritten and the bucolic White Noise, are dazzling.
The varied, multifaceted music veers from confounding, darting urgency (We Are A Bomb – where the infectious, immediate melody is offset by unpredictable time changes) to richly detailed, carefully constructed acoustic atmospheres (the title track). Much of it demands close attention from the listener but repays it amply. Although drawing from a deep well of sources, Firefly Burning also succeed in building their own musical worlds, largely as a result of their open-mindedness to different approaches and concepts.
There is a confident mastery of arrangement, space and dynamics here that demonstrates the extent to which the ensemble has developed since Lightships. The sound here is both richly intriguing and subtle, a neat tapestry that is a joy to unravel.