December 8, 2021

Occasionally things just crop up for the most serendipitous of reasons. Although this album appeared a little while ago, it flew entirely under my radar, and I remained blissfully unaware of this memorably named collective until encountering them recently as support to Mostly Autumn. The set they delivered piqued my interest enough to get hold of this album, and it certainly proved to be a fortunate encounter, as there is much to enjoy here. Although described as ‘Ambient Electronica’, this is something of a misnomer, as one can immediately discount any mental images conjured by the ‘A’ word, of burbling New Age tweeness or the kind of unfathomably bland wallpaper occasionally inflicted on us by even respected musicians when slipping into the ‘elevator’ mode (yes, Brian Eno, Klaus Schulze and Bo Hansson, stop skulking at the back there!). It is also not entirely ‘electronica’, owing to the pleasingly old-school presence of the electric guitar throughout.

You will note that I referred to this as a ‘collective’. This is because, although Monkey Trial can not strictly be classed as a ‘band’ – comprising for live performance just the electronics of Clive Mollart augmented by Shaun Bailey on guitar (he also contributes bass guitar on the album) – they also are not entirely a ‘duo’ either, as the album also features percussion from Nick Raybould, who also contributes the beautifully evocative sleeve photography of the Northumberland coast where the album was conceived. In addition to these three credited members, there is also the guest presence of Pablo Raybould on occasional spoken word accompaniment. So, having identified the nature of the beast and the men responsible, let’s have a look at the music…

Monkey Trial on stage (photo: Chris Walkden)

The album consists of seven tracks, roughly speaking alternating between a lengthy (ten minute plus) track followed by a shorter one of around half that length. This is an excellent sequencing ploy, as it feeds the listener with a pleasing diet of longer pieces to get one’s metaphorical teeth into, while avoiding the tendency found on some Tangerine Dream releases towards sustained noodling blunting the appeal. In fact, in many cases the shorter pieces here are in some ways the most successful, with Downfall, Glöesnowb (no, I don’t know either…) and the excellent Sagarmatha (which is a place in Nepal I understand) delivering often spiky, dynamic, percussively driven pieces which, in Tangerine Dream parlance again, belong more to the mid-’70s Ricochet era, or the later White Eagle period than the often demanding likes of the fearsome Zeit and Atem. Don’t go thinking you’re just going to be getting some Tangerine Clones here, however, as – while clearly an obvious touchstone which would be the act of an idiot to deny – there are a much wider range of influences at play here.

The slowly unfurling opener sets the album’s stall out perfectly with all elements of the Monkey Trial identity jostling for position in what could almost be an ‘Overture’, while Bailey’s guitar in places, such as towards the end of the cleverly-titled One In Vermillion, evokes Mike Oldfield in his liquidly languid soloing. This is good stuff, it really is. The guitar here is pleasingly not relegated to mere ‘textures’ – although that is here in plentiful supply – but actual lead guitar work, which is one of the things helping to escape the shackles of electronica clichés past. The aforementioned Vermillion is the piece on which the spoken word makes its presence most felt, with a bizarre tale woven about an artist, if at times difficult to always pick up owing to the fairly unobtrusive mix of the voice. In fact, while it is effective and puts the title in context, it must be said that the long section with the vocals does outstay its welcome in this instance somewhat, and the piece only really fully redeems itself in the superb Bailey-enhanced closing section, which is one of the highlights of the whole album to these ears.

Elsewhere another longform piece, Things With Wings, heads into much darker territory, a musical exercise in conjuring up a nightmare during which we may not know what the titular Winged Things are, but we do know quite categorically that we never, ever want to find out for ourselves! In places this one could even grace the work of Can – I will leave that to the individual reader whether or not that is a good thing! The final long selection here is the almost-title track, Vikings At First, which divides its time between relaxing, drifting passages and much busier interludes. If anyone has ‘Floydian Soundcapes’ on their ‘buzzword bingo’ card, then tick it off, as there is no other phrase to do justice to parts of this standout piece! The longest track on here at almost fifteen minutes, it could be seen as something of an odd title, as while Viking raids have been described as many things over the years, ‘ambient’ is very rarely one of them. Having said that, of course, one imagines it couldn’t all be daily pillages and village-burning in the Viking Hordes, and there would probably have been rather long stretches of ‘here’s some waves, very relaxing, oh look, here’s some more waves’ – so the musical structure does begin to make evocative sense. The closing After Viking, following on from the this one, is by contrast a fully laid-back, calming piece to close. This would seem appropriate, as one would thing that sitting in the smouldering ruins of one’s village might well lead to some soul-searching reflection!

All in all, this is a good listen. It’s varied enough to avoid any wallpaper accusations, it contains enough contrast between the electronica and the guitars to avoid any robotic or soulless tendencies, and best of all it doesn’t overstay its welcome, coming in at a nice digestible 55 minutes or so, resisting the temptation to fill up the available minutes with bland filler. It’s a smart move. If you’re a lover of any era of Tangerine Dream, or even the more electronic space-rock excursions of Hawkwind or Gong, and if you can appreciate the polarising work Steve Hillage has done with the oft-dismissed but excellent System 7, then there will be a lot for you to enjoy here. Plus, Mollart and Bailey are both credited with playing ‘machines’ – and you have to find out what that’s about, right?

Viking – join the Horde…