Richard Hawley has gone… astral. The familiar warm and tender growl has always been at the forefront of his sound, but with his sixth studio album Standing At The Sky’s Edge it becomes part of the mix and the heavy use of echo means it mostly sounds as if he’s singing from the depths of a cave. Lyrics definitely take a back seat.
The album plays with psychedelia, space rock and ragas, with heavy riffs and raw, visceral guitar solos thrown in, confirming that Hawley is, as everyone knows, a superb guitarist.
But the overall result is not altogether satisfying: some of the tracks seem overlong, as if the temptation to throw in just a few more special effects has taken over from crafting a coherent piece of music. There’s a lot to remind one of the prog-rock of the late ’60s / early ’70s, but without the spark of genius, delicacy and restraint that marked the instrumentals by, say, Pink Floyd.
That’s not to say there aren’t some really good moments. Opening track She Brings The Sunlight winds up slowly with some lovely Eastern promise before crashing into a song with a droning, folky, minor chord intonation. George Harrison in his Indian phase crossed with Fairport Convention, if you can imagine such a thing, with a big guitar break to finish.
The title track is an epic of lives about to come to disaster, sounding almost biblical at times and with a slow menace that builds and intensifies. The voice is calm, measured, relentless – and that makes it even more chilling than if it had been sung with a Nick Cave rant.
Down In The Woods is a fast-paced track with a vaguely menacing promise: “Won’t you follow me down, down into the woods, come back feeling good…” Seek It is a much gentler song about looking for love, the voice back to the fore, and Don’t Look At The Sun is a half-way house between the two styles with a tender, laid-back lyric but a wide spacey soundscape, and this is one track where the instrumental section really adds to the track.
The Wood Collier’s Grave is another delight, like a Grimm’s fairy tale set in outer space; it has a truly otherworldly feeling. The first single will be Leave Your Body Behind You. It kicks off well enough with a strong melody and crashing guitars but runs out of steam half way through, morphing into a quieter passage, a short guitar break and then a long-drawn out finale that lacks definition. And Before is a lovely, melancholy song that suffers from an out-of-character and unnecessary heavy instrumental section in the middle.
It’s great to hear Richard Hawley expanding his horizons and there’s a lot to enjoy in this album. If some of the sound could be better defined, and the special effects shaken on with a slightly lighter hand, it would be more coherent and ultimately more impressive.