Army of Briars’ ‘Made From A Broken Star’ is one of those fabulous albums that comes along only once in a very long while. Explore and cherish.
By David Kidman
Made From A Broken Star is one of those album titles that straightaway intrigues and, when presented in a compellingly arty, beautifully designed and executed package, it has to be regarded as a rare must-explore artefact. And trust me, you’ll not be disappointed. This album represents experimental/psych-folk at its best, an outstandingly original disc in sound and concept. It’s a masterpiece of folk magic, which mixes into its overall folky ambience intense but delicate poetry and elements of psych and prog while boldly yet naturally flecked with jazz improvisation moves.
So who are the Army Of Briars? It’s a four-piece that, in broad terms, centres around the established Sheffield husband-and-wife duo Tim & Julie Cole, Egham (Surrey)-based multi-instrumentalist, electronica specialist and producer Martin Archer, and the imaginative and evocative lyrics of contemporary poet Keith Jafrate, an undeservedly obscure figure who I believe once led a succession of jazz-poetry and modern-jazz ensembles. From time to time, the foursome may bring in extra musicians as required to further augment the already selective palette with additional timbres – in this instance, grand piano, bass guitar, percussion, or a brace of string players who together may form a quartet or string orchestra.
The product of Army Of Briars’ endeavours is a highly persuasive and uniquely tactile music that has a strong and absolute feeling of connectedness with the listener. This connectedness and unity is all the more striking when you learn that the individual constituent parts were recorded separately by the musicians and then mixed remotely by Martin: a familiar and now common modus operandi of course (especially in these pandemic times), but rarely so successfully engineered that the end result, as here, deceives us into believing it’s capturing a live, interactive band performance with musicians responding to and trading off each other in real-time (as a unified ensemble playing in the same location).
The three Army Of Briars’ musicians enjoy a special relationship with the texts to which they provide a musical response or affiliation (it’s not appropriate to use the word “accompany” in this context, IMHO). Their freewheeling-folk-prog musical expression ideally suits Keith’s poetry, which has been described as imagistic – key features of this style being the employment of free verse in conjunction with precise imagery and the patterns and rhythms of common speech. This feature is mirrored brilliantly in a comparable conjunction of free and precise expression in the music – especially, I think, in Julie’s delivery, which hones in with pinpoint accuracy on individual syllables or words yet is also capable of a more extended, cool, smooth and controlled legato line. In their different yet complementary ways, Tim and Julie’s vocals are fragile and vulnerable yet strong and pure, matching the expression of the simple, ageless impressions and experiences, while the musical backdrops are ingenious, warm and yet often quite other-worldly.
This juxtaposition, together with the adventurous, constantly shape-shifting instrumental chiaroscuro conjured by Martin and Tim, produces a totality of experience that is genuinely exciting and animated, with the tones, timbres and vocables colliding to represent (i.e. both depict and express our responses to) aspects of nature – and in doing so, replicate intensely the curious duality of the seemingly diametrically opposed states of solitude and connectedness that may often characterise our experience of nature.
There’s also a lithe, supple quality in Army Of Briars’ approach to illustrating Keith’s poems, for all that individual group members’ roles are both consistent and well-defined within the process of setting to music. In simple and general terms, Tim is responsible for the melody – this is a considerable achievement in itself, a feat of imagination that transcends pure musical skill, and not to be underestimated, for the source poems are by no means straightforward either linguistically or structurally. Martin is then responsible for the musical arrangements, excepting a small handful of tracks where the setting involves a grand-piano part performed and composed – or in one case improvised – by guest musician Paul Taylor; or a percussion collage assembled by fellow guest musician Martin Pyne (drums, percussion and vibraphone), whose deft and melancholy signature jazz vibe proves an integral element in the texture of several tracks, driving the text along by a spellbinding combination of metrical anchoring and brushed momentum.
Julie’s role lies in the interpretation and transmission of the words through her seriously beautiful cut-glass-pure voice, and she feeds off and into Tim’s quite particular, often distinctly angular melodies with a symbiotic closeness, in which respect her harmony singing with Tim is spine-chilling. On a number of tracks, Tim’s own voice takes the lead, and its attractively frail, even almost diffident timbre imparts another, quite unexpected kind of ethereality to the insistent, questioning imagery and scattered thought-patterns.
The accuracy of the disc title Made From A Broken Star is brought into focus as its potentially diverse shards, or elements, collide and collude to form an enlightening whole. It’s noteworthy, but perhaps easiest in retrospect to observe, that no two tracks sound alike; in this regard, many times over the course of the album’s 54 minutes, I felt a tangible kinship with the sensibility and open-heartedness of the Incredible String Band. However, all tracks are united by the poet’s commonality of vision and resilient use of language as translated into the instrumental – and vocal – imagery. The very immediacy of Keith’s modus operandi as a wordsmith seems to cohere with the heady rush of free-jazz. Yet, conversely, each utterance is precisely enunciated and deliberate, coordinated in a way free jazz tends not to be.
The album’s 17 tracks gather together to form a kind of song cycle that begins and ends with Keith’s dedicatory epistle To William Blake. This poem is both an introduction/preface to and summary of Keith’s poetic consciousness and the wild and inspirational inventiveness of the musicians’ responses to the extraordinary verbal stimuli. It’s presented in two completely different musical settings – first, a skewed jazzy piano and restless brushed-snare take up the disturbed, fragmentary reflection of the poem sung in strangely smooth-toned staccato, the mix of concrete and impressionistic, ancient and modernist (Blake and ee cummings perhaps?) that swoons in gentler (albeit still restless) electronic ambience in the second setting, which serves as the album’s coda.
In between the Blake-dedicated bookends, then, we traverse a sequence that undeniably forms a kind of narrative which intermingles themes and preoccupations (observation, desire, determination, escape, loss) yet can also be taken more literally as a series of nature portraits, each positively dripping with colourful, intense crystals of reactive response that explore through the musical setting the intimate personal impact that that aspect of nature exerts on the poet on his journey through the landscape. Track 2, Go Song, forms a logical sequel to the Blake tribute, with its invitingly sodden greenery instigating creative writing through the fall of a raindrop, set to a straightforward backbeat pulse that’s gradually taken over by a sensory clamour of instrumental inventiveness.
Arbor Low is one of the album’s most arresting sonic experiences; it begins with Julie’s voice piercing the silence, spine-tingling doubletracked harmony, the cue for the wind to come rippling and then tearing through the foliage, a force of nature portrayed darkly by clarinet, whistle and layered autumnal strings – a touch reminiscent of Robin Williamson’s Myrrh period. Tim then takes over to give voice to The Green Man and his leafy transformative powers, backed by sinuous brushed rhythm, vibraphone and soprano sax interjections; his voice is joined by Julie’s, and together they reach a magical apotheosis on the key line “All who pass my way are changed”. A Reforming Monster and Jack Of All Trades are united by a sense of almost childlike playfulness. The former is almost like entering a windblown woodland toyshop, with scattering, skittering percussion cross-rhythms and gleefully wilful electronic interjections, whereas the latter’s magical folklore brings a carefree medieval dance round the bonfire that’s interrupted periodically by mischievous goblin jazzers.
The disc’s charming title song’s fractured melodic note clusters spill out in glittery, jittery, spiky percussion backed by soothing guitar and glockenspiel traces, forming a kind of metaphysical portrayal of devotion. Having Nothing, on the other hand, has the aura of a confessional chanson, and plunges down into despair and desolation, again mirrored in nature, its failings, its rootlessness and misplantings. There’s further drama in the drum roll that ushers in the mysterious reedy slow dance of The Nine Ladies, which gains a portentous, stately ambience with the introduction of the evenly piercing timbre of a mellotron straight from the court of the crimson king. Whence might also have arrived the focused freestyle flutterings of Birdflight’s piano and percussion and refracted chords.
After the latter’s frozen interlude, The Kindest Water brings a distinctly Grateful Dead feel with its frantic tumbling rhythms and, in particular, the electric guitar solo that develops out of the weaving, twirling sax/mellotron dance. The rain-sodden atmosphere then clears for This Is The Sum and the promise of renewal and the reappearance of the swifts and swallows. Think Of A Time again harks back to prog-folk with its fluted Tull flourishes (tho’ this track wouldn’t have been out of place on an early Family/Traffic album!). Then, in complete contrast, Flight Flower brings Julie’s most extraordinary vocal performance on the album: an impossibly, impeccably poised tour-de-force of awkward melodic leaps and seemingly random intervals offset by Martin Pyne’s bustling, skeletal percussion improv and glacial vibraphone cool-jazz counterpoint.
Then comes the barely-a-minute-long A Book Put Me Here, where for once, the poetry seems to demand more than Martin’s arrangement can give it; here, Keith reads his own poem against a lounge-jazz piano and drumkit backing. Somehow it doesn’t fit with the tracks on either side (maybe this pithy reflection didn’t readily inspire a melody – who knows?), but we’re back in the groove for the penultimate adventure of the album, In Part Two, an uneasy and slightly cluttered collision of musical styles that provokes a cathartic multi-sax cacophony before yielding to the fader and looping back to a reprise of the Blake dedication that heralded the start of the sequence.
It’s hard to believe that Made From A Broken Star is only Army Of Briars’ second album. Their eponymous debut was released all of 15 years ago; they themselves described it as “an album of songs so challenging to write and record that we were never able to follow it up – it stands as a record of our commitment to push our individual skills to their limits by taking these songforms and extending them into new sonic territory”. A bold, often unorthodox combination of elements it certainly proved – and the hallowed names of Pentangle, The Incredible String Band, John Martyn, Nick Drake and Stockhausen were all pertinently namechecked as influences. Back in 2007, the experimental settings may have appeared a touch over-busy and consciously “arranged”, especially where the electronics were prominent in the soundscape. This new offering, while manifestly cut from the same cloth, possesses a greater assurance and integration of parts, all the while retaining the air of improvisational spontaneity in the musicians’ interaction and responsiveness. It also achieves a greater clarity of texture, each track maintaining an impressive sense of proportion without any sense of overload even when the texture is busy and all the channels on the mixing desk occupied. It’s a living, breathing vision that’s shared by poet, musicians and arranger.
Made From A Broken Star is a most beguiling artistic statement that’s nigh irresistible both in its proud natural strangeness and in its uniquely original and powerful musical and lyrical expression. Diversity of expression, aural stimulation and honest experimentation go hand in hand with allowable and welcome creative eccentricity, while the level of musicianship ensures that the end product, while lovingly and painstakingly crafted, is shot through with integrity and a real sense of purpose. This is enhanced by the enclosed lyrics-booklet, which is adorned with a host of wonderful illustrations by Julie herself. The overall package is an example of old-fashioned presentation art and craft at its very best.
This is one of those fabulous (if at times demanding) albums that comes along only once in a very long while. Keep an open mind, and you’ll discover this is a CD to be grabbed, explored at length and cherished – you’ll not hear its like anywhere, I’ll venture.