Album Reviews

Starless & Bible Black – Shape Of The Shape

(Static Caravan) UK release date: 12 October 2009


The whims of fashion dictate that the folk revival is nearing the end of its phenomenal lifespan, with anti and alt (leaving aside the ongoing European concern of neo) having been transatlantically replumbed to the point of fixity. No longer is it the scene of choice for the floating hipster constituency, no longer the twee soundtrack of ad execs’ choice.

It’s a shift marked over here by the emergence of the stereotypical likes of Laura Marling, Emmy The Great and Noah And The Whale. But it’s a shift ignored by Starless & Bible Black, who have formed in the gaps between the messages.

Listening to Shape Of The Shape, one gets the distinct impression that scene-posturing and catching the momentum of international trends are things this Manchester band, who recorded the album in a village hall local to them in Snowdonia, are happy to let pass them by.

Their earnest retrospective vision returns us to Bandoggs, Fairport Convention and Pentangle; large-scale, rigorous song-writing chops, married to a nuanced and extensive palette for the revivifying of folk that includes the space tornados of Hawkwind, the Europhile motorik-and-synth combinations of Stereolab and psychedelic spiralling of Sun City Girls.

They are distinctly beyond fashion. Rather they present themselves as a post-modern folk juggernaut, recapturing the brio and structural largesse of ’70s folk rock, but with a smartly-addressed electicism. All this without a cute tie-in, a crude animation, or a burger phone in sight. If The Old Grey Whistle Test could ever return to our screens, S&BB would be the house band.

Previous to this album their work was more ploughman’s lunch, straightforward with dulcimers and banjos holding the rustic foreground. Here it’s blown up to russet coloured portraits of ’70s folk rock, bleached and spacey. Telecasters replace the acoustic strumming, prompting Television-esque artrock through a Stone Roses Mancunian jangle as on Your Majesty Man, or bluesy riffs fuzzed up into glistening slow-handed figurations as with Hanging On The Vine.

Most compellingly, a dominant role is handed to effects and synthwork. If one recalls Vetiver‘s clumsy attempts to integrate synth into their San Fran folk sound, then S&BB’s results could not be more different. Often occupying the same tonal space as lap-steel, and usually moving close to the guitars, Raz Ullah’s Moogish synth finds a means to subvert the authenticity of the sound, smartly destabilising the folksy patina with pitch-bent addenda, wonky alterations and squealing rockets into space.

At times the synths feel both bucolic and retro-futurist at once. Added to that the ethereal Cocteau Twins-meets-Radiophonic Workshop space-age cathedral sounds of Les Furies, and the ambient sounds on Popty Ping, like field recordings from the outer-regions of space, and you have a graceful and skilful approach to large-scale folktronica.

The nine minute Les Furies is set to be the album’s most memorable track: deeply reminiscent of the space-kraut of early Stereolab, beginning with a lone vibraphone lost in a vast electronic soundscape, the track funnels into a lock drone before whipping up to the intensity of a Hawkwind isotopic implosion. H�l�ne Gautier’s vocals relate Francophone observations on after-hours culture, capping a delightful set of performances that put her somewhere close to Sandy Denny passing off as a Ye Ye girl.

Certainly Gautier’s voice is made more notable by virtue of its positioning as a female lead in a traditionally male-dominated system of representation, but it’s also distinctive in its attitudinal skill, from wavering flute to glassy chanteuse, never being the most flexible instrument but with a flexibility of attitude that pushes it to interesting places.

Her Gallic-accented English in Radio Blues starts life with a breathy chanson hand-me-down of the kind Broadcast‘s Trish Keenan borrowed from Stereolab’s Letitia Gane, half-way through mustering the attitude for an astonishing timbral shift; hardening to a thin-throated Shirley Bassey. On the gentle Scarborough tangle of Country Heir, her awkwardly laconic takes on Joni Mitchell through Vashti Bunyan prove more daring than successful but there is an earnest grace throughout, not enough perhaps for the voice to become ‘iconic’, but affecting nonetheless.

The album cover is a Beton-brut fish-eyed building and a screaming Ford Capri, roughly Photoshopped to suggest a ’70s sci-fi zine cover wherein JG Ballard meets Iain Sinclair at a defunct powerplant. It’s redolent of the retro of sci-fi oddness in a corner of Britain that may have been forgotten, but is fertile ground for the revision of this country’s folk tradition. Solid is rarely an epithet that connotes much excitement, but Starless & Bible Black turn that adjective on its head with this daringly unfashionable album.


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