Tuesday 21 August 2018

Scatter shots across the bow: Sieben's 'Crumbs'

Sieben is the alter ego of Matt Howden, one of our most original musician-songwriters - and an artist who will already be familiar to those of you who have kindly followed this blog for some time. It's always a joy to write about his records and performances, partly because you can never quite be sure what he'll do next. All the evidence is in front of you - all the building blocks are there - but he'll push them in a confounding new direction, taking something that might resemble a formula then wrangling it, in front of your very ears, into a sound you've simply not heard before.

Some entry-level information: Sieben in its purest form is MH entirely solo. A jaw-droppingly intense, virtuosic violin player, he rejoices in a slightly unusual set-up: vocals, fiddle, both fed into an increasingly complex bank of pedal technology. As a result, he becomes his own full band.

He loops not just sections of songs - lending many Sieben tracks a signature, addictive groove - but live effects, creating beats with strikes to the side of the violin, or scratching his chin against it to sound like a shaker or hi-hat. He overdubs himself onstage, cloning himself into a string section or providing a distorted metal bassline. Part of the thrill of a Sieben show is seeing just what he has to do to make the sounds he needs: I'll never forget the first time I saw him nail a backing vocal by singing it into the violin pick-up instead of the normal mike, a second voice echoing all around us, but seemingly at a distance, slightly distorted.

In contrast to this potentially restrictive set-up, Sieben on record is all about leaving any so-called limitations for dust. Each album is in some way a reaction to or consolidation of the ones that came before it. Emerging during the century's first decade as part of an underground 'dark folk' scene, MH created a series of albums representing an absolute high watermark for that genre: a gifted lyricist, he would experiment as much with words as music: 'Sex and Wildflowers' crafting a new botanic vocabulary to underpin its love poetry, and 'Ogham inside the Night' pursuing the ritualistic links between nature and language.

But after making such accomplished, definitive statements - what next? Refinement and reinvention. Freed from country matters, the Sieben identity somehow becomes more fully-formed, yet more elusive, in parallel. Gradually, MH's lyrics have abandoned the pastoral for the personal and political, while the sonic exploration continues: 2012's 'No Less Than All' a restlessly intense shapeshifter; 2014's 'Each Divine Spark' conversely one of his most intimate, beautiful achievements; then the astonishing 'Old Magic' project (mostly 2016), which collected three EPs into an epic masterpiece that set history and modernity, rural and civic, on 10-minute collision courses with each other against some of his most skyscraping arrangements yet.

('The Other Side of the River', taken from 'The Old Magic', 2016.)

But none of these releases - none - prepares you for the latest Sieben album, 'Crumbs'. This is a record of its time, for its time, born from unchecked anger. Protest anthems, Sieben-style, there's no room for ambiguity in the songs' meanings - instead, the rug is pulled from under our feet with a satirical, almost vaudevillian atmosphere that makes you smile against the despair.

It's a punk album. No accident, surely, that the font on the CD credits resembles the Crass stencil. (The artwork is full of satisfying touches - not least in the photos, where instead of a shooting stick or fencing sword, MH's weapon of choice is of course his bow.) Training his sights on the world's current Brexit/Trump axis of nastiness, 'Crumbs' roars out of the traps with a clutch of songs that once again reboot our hero's musical approach.

'I Will Ignore the Apocalypse' sounds like previous Sieben - strummed, isolated violin strings - for all of 30 seconds, before the military drum tattoo starts (Tom Didlock guesting for a few songs on an actual kit), panicked air-raid siren fiddle whirrs into the landscape and MH starts looping his vocals round in an obsessive call-and-response. 'Coldbloods' continues the momentum, with the looped voice in the background chanting rhythmically, emphasising the pounding beat and tightly-wound riff.

('Coldbloods', taken from 'Crumbs', 2018.)

Then 'Is It Dark Enough?' almost pushes this style to breaking point, playing two styles of vocal against each other - robotic repetition against a world-weary croon - so cleverly woven that the two lines intersect at certain points in the lyric while the tenser-than-ever percussion taps away in agitation and the fiddle line ascends, conveying terror in the way only furiously-scrubbed strings can.

As the album continues, you realise how closely the arrangements fit the concept. Even if a song starts innocently enough with a single melody or beat, chaos soon takes over. Elements that sound at first like they should be in completely different songs are made to clash ruthlessly, then in fact gel perfectly. 'Here is the News' is pure cabaret - mannered, queasily jaunty vocals - but set against hyperactive drum-and-bass, and metallic violin that sounds like a jolt of electricity about to burn out the headphones. 'Sell Your Future' manages the feat of combining what sounds like a doom-laden string quartet of sorts, with an off-kilter breakneck electronic riff (the intro almost seems to feature 'wobbles', as if to convey warping) and declamatory near-rapping. Even when the drums temporarily fall away in the middle, there's no pause for breath in the onslaught.

(The official video for 'Sell Your Future', taken from 'Crumbs', 2018.)

In the words of John Lydon (on PiL's 'Rise'), 'anger is an energy' - and that could be this album's strapline - however dark the subject matter, the sheer fury and commitment makes for an endlessly exhilarating listen. None of the songs outstay their welcome - as soon as MH has pushed each one as far as it can go, it suddenly stops dead and the next one picks up the baton. At its most experimental end, the album features several tracks lasting mere seconds, as if snatches of tracks caught between radio stations on the dial, the listener realising there's no escape from the nightmare these songs address.

Out of nowhere, an extraordinary song finally slows 'Crumbs' down - 'Forge a Better World'. Assembled with real maverick confidence, this brief ray of optimism is almost a ballad, with moments of genuine reflection and actual silence - but still the wail of the fiddle prevails, giving even this hopeful moment an ominous, industrial edge.

'Crumbs' might sound like pretty much nothing else on earth, but for the longer-term Sieben-watcher, it's a pleasure to hear certain elements of previous incarnations still in there. Some of the cavernous, expansive bass sounds and one-man orchestra density will thrill fans like me who have a special fondness for 'The Old Magic'. Perhaps most of all, MH's gift for wordplay and unusual coinages - so skilfully deployed all the way back to the 'pastoral' albums - is now used to razor-sharp effect. Against some prosaic, familiar phrases - 'here is the news', 'roll-up, roll-up' - unexpected Siebenisms appear to pull you up short and make you listen again: 'heart trumps hate', 'pig-pin-prick eyes', 'a Brexit-ear in which to scream', 'grain-shake lies'. Themes of making, building and rebuilding - recurring Sieben themes - here have extreme resonance, as the album imagines the task of putting the world back together when 'a better nature will endure'.

A triumph out of tragedy, 'Crumbs' is testament to what's possible when an artist tackles something unexpected and unpredictable by bringing their full range of talents to bear on it. It's as if Sieben had been keeping dynamite in the violin case, waiting for something to ignite it. Fearsomely good.


Practical points. The best way to enjoy 'Crumbs' is on CD. There are two bonus tracks, which are well worth having: 'Coldbloods' and 'Here is the News', arranged for a full band. Not only is it a novel delight to hear Sieben tracks performed in such a way, it's also an eye-opener on the complexity of the versions he achieves with just the violin and loops.

You can buy the disc from the Matt Howden / Sieben online shop here.

CD and download are also available on Bandcamp here - remember, if you go 'digital only', you don't get the two extra tracks.

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