As a member of Crippled Black Phoenix (up to 2013 anyway) and Gonga, it’s fair to say that Joe Volk knows a thing or two about big riffs, and prog structures. As if that weren’t enough, he’s also worked with Japanese experimentalists Boris and provided music for the Banksy documentary Exit Through The Gift Shop.
Despite currently being a resident of Switzerland, Volk’s ties to Bristol are strong, and considering he’s put out something like 13 releases on Invada, it’s no surprise to find Geoff Barrow and Adrian Utley (Portishead) worked closely with Volk on this album. In fact, he’s aided and abetted by a number of luminaries that include Billy Fuller (BEAK>), Guy Metcalfe and Leafcutter John. Although there are a number of nods to the prog persuasion of Crippled Black Phoenix, it is perhaps Leafcutter John’s mix of folk and electronica that the key influence on Happenings And Killings, as this low-key and surprisingly quiet album is, for the most part, rather subdued. Whilst there are a number of producers and additional musicians helping Volk out, this is very much a solo album in sound; there’s nothing here that sounds like a collaboration.
A song such as Sirens, for example sound as if they’ve been recorded at dusk, in front of a log fire that’s heating the only room of a log cabin located in the darkness at the edge of town. There’s not much to the song, just a strummed acoustic guitar, a daubing of incredibly subtle electronic flavouring, and his voice. It’s his vocals that really gets a hold, his way with a harmonised part and laid back drawling style might seem almost too lazy for its own good to begin with (and indeed, too low in the mix at times), but on Sirens it achieves and aching beauty that’s impossible to ignore.
This is an album that seeks to marry electronics to folk, but the early delicate guitars and skittering drums of opening track Bampfylde Moore Carew do little to push the envelope, which is not to say that the song itself isn’t effective, it is but the mix is so subtle that it’s only in the closing few moments that the electronic tones start to exert an influence. As the album progresses the electronics take more of a lead, particularly on the oppressive thunder of The Curve, which pits the delicate nature of the guitar against an aggressive electro part. These Feathers Count sticks out like a sore thumb at the heart of the album, in that it doesn’t sound like anything else that surrounds it. It kicks off like an expansive Pink Floyd number (a Wish You Were Here out-take from a parallel universe) before breaking into a math rock inspired riff propelled by an insistent beat. It’s the catchiest moment on the album by far, but not necessarily the best.
Time spent with the album reveals subtle and sublime touches that are worth discovering through perseverance and immersion. The Thief Of Ideals hints at the Beach Boys circa Pet Sounds whilst throwing a little Jethro Tull into the mix. The entwining of guitar and electronics on the elegant Soliloquy is pitch perfect, and Volk’s voice here in particular is understated, but utterly beautiful. Closing track Yellow Sneak comes screaming into life like a THX sound display, before stripping everything back to just guitar and voice, and slowly introducing a strings and woodwind part. Once again, as with everything on this album, subtlety is key, and Volk’s vocal feels as if it’s being whispered into your ears, as he plays out what sounds like a painful blame game in quite beautiful fashion. There’s very little on Happenings And Killings that will grab anyone on the first listen. Yet with a little patience, it unfurls and reveals hidden depths, and they are well worth exploring.