Stornoway’s third album is named after the Great Skua, a seabird that is at the top of the food chain thanks, in part, to its aggressive demeanour. It’s a strange choice for a title, as the content of the album itself is anything but aggressive or ruthless and the band themselves could hardly be considered top predators. In fact it wouldn’t be surprising to find that they’ve developed a defensive strategy in case they meet Lemmy or Burzum plonker, Varg Vikernes.
Dig a little deeper and it quickly becomes apparent that there are birds all over the album, with the calls of 20 different species woven into the songs. Their presence reflects the interests of Dr Brian Briggs (the band’s vocalist and songwriter) in ornithology and the natural world. Whilst the band’s last album Tales From Terra Firma was a rather introspective affair, this time the band is looking at a larger picture, heading to the skies and attempting to take in the vastness of the world that they are just a small part of.
It’s an outlook best summed up by Sing With Our Senses, which finds Briggs communing with nature as he sings “We go down to the sea, and we lower our arms and defences…this is the world that we belong to, the music our senses need to tune to”. The song itself starts as a low key croon, and eventually opens out into a vast and affecting hymn to the environment. The addition of a proper producer in the shape of Gil Norton this time around has given the band a more polished sheen and his expertise gives these moments of grandeur a real sense of power and wonder.
Man On A Wire, which was inspired by the tightrope walk between the twin towers by Philippe Petit, aims high with string arrangements and lush production, but for some reason, the grandeur just doesn’t hit home with the conviction found on Sing With Our Senses. There may be the occasional misfire (the straight up When You’re Feeling Gentle is something of a disappointment), but when the band try for something a little more expansive, they generally nail it.
Heart Of The Great Alone for example takes in a little prog-rock and doesn’t suffer in the slightest. Closing track Love Song Of The Beta Male is a beautifully written take on the various aspects of how people view love and romantic gestures – Woody Allen and Rob Reiner would be proud – with Briggs’ perfectly judged delivery and the subtle use of strings and brass, Stornoway get it just right; proving that it’s not the grand gestures that count, but the meaningful choices that make the difference.
It’s the bigger picture that concerns the band on a number of these songs, with Briggs’ having stated that he “wanted to feel connected to the outdoors…wanted to feel small”. The Road You Didn’t Take’s low-key folk considers the choices of life whilst on the roof of the world, high up on a mountain. There’s a positivity here, but the space and expansive nature of the song provides a vista for Briggs to ponder the bigger existential questions.
Whilst The Road You Didn’t Take is rather dour and poignant, and playful bounce of Lost Youth finds Briggs lost, high up in the valley (or in the gravel with the mammoth’s bones) but in reasonably cheerful mood despite not having a clue where he is. Get Low also sees the band in pop-mode, with the deft application of electronics and keyboards, but one of Stornoway’s strengths has always been their way with a big hook or an earworm melody, Get Low is yet another example of this and deserves its place alongside the likes of Zorbing.
Bonxie doesn’t contain too many surprises, and it doesn’t really have many answers to the bigger questions, but it does have a number of brilliantly written songs. Stornoway might not be able to cut a mountain down with the edge of their hands, but they’ll be able to provide a nice soundtrack for stargazing and bird watching, which is sometimes all you need.