April 26, 2022

It’s an odd thing, but as I have grown older, with a free bus pass tantalisingly close, my approach and attitude to ambient instrumental music has very much shifted. Time was, and not all that long ago, when – aside from a liking for a few early Tangerine Dream albums and the like – the appearance of the ‘A-word’ was akin to a warning sign reading ‘Danger: Hole in your record collection’, for me to swerve around. Now, however, things have changed. I’m not exactly going to rush out to snap up the complete works of Brian Eno, or Robert Fripp’s tortuous Frippertronics business, but already this year there have been a few high quality albums which can at least partly be described as ‘ambient’, or at least ‘ambient prog’. And this one, while not perfect by any means, has enough going for it to join them.

The inspiration behind this project is quite simple – the revered (in a selective way) albums from Talk Talk, Spirit Of Eden and Laughing Stock. I say ‘selective’ because, of course, while these works are held up as musical touchstones by their dedicated advocates, there were, and still are, many more who were baffled by the seemingly formless nature, and the lack of anything much in the way of conventional song structure. I myself was one of those (and I must revisit those albums now, having not heard then for over three decades). The main man here is one David Joseph, who has worked in a similar way to Mark Hollis on those Talk Talk albums, and created rhythm patterns and chord progressions for the cast of musicians to improvise over. Which may sound like the potential for a musical car crash defining the phrase ‘widdling twaddle’, but in actual fact largely works. It helps that the calibre of the musicians involved is very high, with no less than seven veterans of Talk Talk and Mark Hollis albums, and respected names such as Tim Renwick, David Knopfler, Robbie Mcintosh, Mike Smith and others.

Featuring just eight tracks, from around three minutes to over six on the more expansive pieces, it’s a mixed bag but a higher than average hit rate. There are still tracks here (the shorter ones, mostly), which seem to be little more than placeholders (the midway-pair of Wave Upon Wave and An Approach mostly – the opener Next To Silence also doesn’t really do a lot, but can be forgiven as an introduction to proceedings), but the rest are all enjoyable stuff. There is a pleasingly full-band sound to proceedings, for those who might have feared a shimmering forest of wavering violins and murmuringly polite keyboards tinkling away. There are drums on five of the tracks, and guitar on all of them. In The Trees and Rain After Sun impress as tracks two and three, and the final trio of The Tree Of Life, Mysterium and The New Earth form the best stretch of music on the album. Indeed, the closing The New Earth features a superb coda with a glorious guitar solo courtesy of (I believe) Robbie Mcintosh, and does illustrate how a little more of that contrast could have elevated this from a good album to genuinely exceptional.

The whole concept, from the packaging to the evocation of the music, concerns nature and ecological matters, and to back that up a team-up with ‘Play It Green’ ensures that a real tree will be planted for every album sold, which is a superb idea. I can just imagine Greta Thunberg saving up her pocket money at this very moment! The front cover image, as well as the whole nature theme, also overtly looks back at those Talk Talk records, with the imagery of birds in tree branches, and the album is in fact expressly dedicated to the memory and legacy of Mark Hollis.

This isn’t an album for those who long for a chorus and a big wall of heavy guitar and Hammond organ, and it is necessary to enjoy instrumental music before you enter, but for anyone with an open mind on matters ambient and pieces of meticulously put together tone poetry, there is much of interest here. And certainly, those who are in possession of well-worn and treasured copies of Spirit Of Eden and Laughing Stock should enquire within immediately. The planet will thank you – and you can’t really get more important than that in these fraught and concerning times. Help the earth fight back – get held by trees! Their bark is worse than their bite…