By Sharon O’Connell
Load a promotional copy of Ryley Walker’s fifth solo album into iTunes and the descriptor “prog fucking rock” appears beneath the title and his name. It’s a slyly humorous detail that speaks volumes; most obviously, about his deep, oft-declared love for that music, which has a role here, but also his habit of self-mocking. Whether it’s in interviews, onstage chat or his Twitter feed, Walker is always ready with a pin, to prick truth’s painful swelling or any hint of pretentiousness.
If there’s a place where that self-consciousness falls away and Walker roams (almost) free, it’s in the authentic present of his music. It was the absence of what he called “smoke and mirrors” that first drew him to Bert Jansch, Nick Drake and John Martyn for 2014’s All Kinds Of You, which introduced a guitarist skilled beyond his 24 years, undisguised influences or no. A year later, Primrose Green confirmed him as a striking songwriting and instrumental talent committed to the cause, with an irresistibly sun-glazed, stoner jazz-folk style that leaned heavily on Pentangle and Tim Buckley as well as the mystic flow and vocal tics of Van Morrison.
As a comparison of the Primrose Green and Astral Weeks covers shows, Walker’s image played to retro romance and the idea of the gilded prodigy. That might have seen a lesser artist forever shackled to his sources but Walker soon moved on. After the all-instrumental Land Of Plenty (one of two fine hook-ups with Bill MacKay) came 2016’s Golden Sings That Have Been Sung, which was to some degree a transitional album. Its opener, “The Halfwit In Me”, showed that although ’70s UK folk still loomed large, Walker was keen to explore his other interests, namely Chicago-school experimentalism, improv jazz and chamber pop.