It’s been six long years since Steve Adey’s critically acclaimed debut album All Things Real, but then haste has never really been very high on the agenda for an artist for whom the term slow-burner might have been invented.
Since his last record, the Edinburgh-based singer-songwriter has experienced a number of personal setbacks, including a car crash and contracting dengue fever and polycythemia (a particularly nasty blood disease) during a period travelling overseas, but he’s also a self-proclaimed perfectionist, prone to spending months in the studio painstakingly re-recording different versions of his compositions until every nuance of his music is absolutely defined as he wants. The end result of half a decade and more of labour is The Tower Of Silence, a meticulously crafted, sparse and funereally paced soundscape on which every note seems to have to earn its place.
Beginning with a minute and a half-long Brian Eno-esque babble of electronic murmurings, the prevailing tone of the album is soon set on first song proper Laughing, on which Adey’s rich, maudlin baritone duets with the angelic harmonies of Helena MacGilp. Initially backed by just some stately piano, reverbing guitar and slowly swelling violins slip unobtrusively into the mix as Adey shares his memories of loss and regret, with MacGilp’s spectral counterpart presumably representing the ghostly spirit of some significant other from his past. Recorded in a 19th century Scottish church, the whole atmosphere is almost supernatural, as if those buried in the earth in the graveyard outside have been summoned from their otherworldly resting place to form part of Adey’s haunting musical vision.
The most obvious reference point for Steve Adey’s work is late Talk Talk, although The Tower Of Silence lacks the formidable musicality and variation of tone and textures that Spirit Of Eden and Laughing Stock so special. It is closer in style to the stark minimalism of Mark Hollis’s eponymous solo album, but also recalls at times the traditional murder ballads of British folk music (a cover of Alasdair Roberts’ Farewell Sorrow is included here) and the epic intensity of Jeff Buckley.
The Tower Of Silence needs to be listened to and absorbed in its entirety – preferably several times – in order to make the most of what it offers. And for all the lack of fire works (or anything even vaguely resembling a tune) there’s no doubt that at times the music does shimmer beautifully. In particular, the string-soaked Dita Parlo (a response to Jean Vigo’s 1934 film L’atalante apparently; quite probably the first of its kind) and the transcendental Tomorrow end the album on a real high. The latter is especially impressive, beginning as a fairly conventional ballad before Adey takes his leave and the track metamorphosises into an eerie, sweeping soundtrack of wordless voices and grand orchestration.
Where The Tower Of Silence falls down a little is its lack of dynamism.In his tireless efforts to produce perfection, Adey has built something that is impressive yet at the same time slightly disengaging. The middle of the album sags somewhat, with songs seeming to flow imperceptibly into one another – a flaw that a little bit more variation or a change of pace could potentially have addressed. It takes real commitment to hang on in there through the entire 35 minutes without feeling a little overwhelmed by the relentless, deathly slowness, and overall this is a record its probably easier to admire than to love.