Tuesday 31 May 2016

New haunts

Time for Specs to don his photography hat again. With a couple of stand-alone 'assignments' alongside my current longer-term project (the latest portraits for that featured in my recent post, 'Picture this'), I've been enjoying one of my busiest ever periods with the camera. I feel particularly lucky that as time has gone on, not only are my 'photo-army' of friends still happy to take part in front of the lens, but their collaborative input has increased. I love it when the models themselves come up with styles or locations - it puts me in different situations/modes - even realms, to some extent, and keeps me on my toes: more reacting, more creating, more improvising, and hopefully more improving.

Al and I had already talked about a number of things we wanted to try on our second session (the first is here). Since we're likely to link together photos from, say, three outings overall, we held over certain characteristics from the first shoot - one of the outfits, plus the use of a brutalist location. Al had already lined up a second dress, off-white, that would tone perfectly with most of the stone we encountered while countering it with a floral motif - and she also suggested making even more this time of the 'Hair'! We discussed the possibility of doing portraits that had an otherworldly feel, a sense of the eerie and off-kilter.

Even in the more 'normal' photos, I sometimes used some soft focus or muted colours to ensure that the image in the picture was never an exact match for what the eye might see alone.

We used a wooden post as a handy framing device - in tandem with Al's cascade of hair, it makes her facial expression difficult to read - as if just looking in on us?

I didn't want Al to be explicitly 'witchy', or alien, or a ghost. She's still wearing heels and a modern watch. However, I did want to convey a sense that she might not be all she seemed. Moving at times away from a brutalist location to more timeless backgrounds, we shot poses where she seemed to need contact with the structures, as if they were supplying some kind of energy...

(For the shot below, we couldn't help but think of the Japanese horror film 'Ring'. I also wanted that sense of slightly inhuman movement for the following shot - the leg just visible as well as the arm to give the idea she has to work her way around the location, drawing power from it, rather than just walking.)

Another theme was the use of doors, windows - or sometimes just apertures and wall markings - to suggest a transition from 'elsewhere'. The more surreal, the better - for example, the door in the shot below is well below Al's actual height...

...while here, in one of my favourite pictures from the whole day, I climbed up to get an unnaturally high vantage point and allow Al to seemingly emerge from the ground.

An obliging set of steps down into (or up from) the river gave us perhaps our strangest images. (Luckily, I don't think you can tell that a group of atmos-puncturing tourists were buzzing around us at the time, making a racket and taking pictures of me taking pictures of Al... I'd be interested to hear what they tell the folks back home when they get round to showing them those snaps!)

Finally, every shoot has its happy accidents: the next shot is a simple out-take - Al wasn't posing and I snapped it without thinking - while you can see how the elements came to our aid for the portrait below. Thanks to Al for her brilliant part in the proceedings.

Thursday 19 May 2016

Frozen in time: 'The Dark Mirror'

Layer upon layer, like snow.

First layer - Schubert

Schubert's 'Winterreise' is arguably the greatest art-song cycle ever written. But it got off to a famously rocky start. The composer found 12 poems from Wilhelm Müller's sequence and set them - only to discover the other 12 later on (which is why the overall sequence of the cycle differs from the Müller original). He performed the first batch of songs enthusiastically to a gathering of utterly baffled friends, who couldn't find a way into their overarching melancholy. At the time, Schubert said they were his best work, and that the group would come to like them as much as he did.

'Winterreise' ('Winter Journey') is sung in the persona of a traveller, walking away from the town where he lost his true love. (This isn't opera, so for once she isn't dead - but has moved on, making a good marriage to someone else.) Song by song, he appears to 'progress', but how far he actually gets is not clear: in a state of existential despair, he addresses landmarks, objects or natural phenomena that all drive his thoughts ruthlessly back to his ex: from the weathervane on her house, to the postal delivery from the town; from the snow in the meadow where they walked, to a falling leaf (like his hope) and a cold, grey morning (like his heart). Finally, he meets a mysterious hurdy-gurdy player, and suggests they travel together, playing his songs.

The appearance of the hurdy-gurdy man could mean 'death' or 'journey's end' - it feels impossible to separate the searing angst of 'Winterreise' from Schubert's knowledge that he was dying while working on it. But of course, the words are Müller's, not Schubert's - and it seems more likely (given the droning nature of the instrument and the lyrical reference to how 'everything keeps turning') that the traveller must, in fact, keep going for ever. I also think there's a strong implication that the hurdy-gurdy player is hanging around in the same place, as if the traveller has got nowhere. After all, the cycle can easily withstand modern/psychoanalytical interpretations - for example, whether the journey is in fact all in the protagonist's mind. It's also - I believe - gender-blind (we know the lost love is a woman, and there was 'talk of marriage' - so, while by convention, the protagonist has to be a man, I can't find a clearly-stated reference to the traveller's sex). This is perhaps reflected in the increasing number of recordings by women - mezzo Alice Coote's rendition (recorded live at the Wigmore Hall with Julius Drake) would easily be one of my desert island versions. [EDIT, some months later: I've since changed my mind slightly about this - I now think it more likely that the 'voice' of the piece is definitely male, and that women performers approach it like a 'trouser role'. It seems to be part of loving 'Winterreise' that one constantly keeps re-thinking it - so no bad thing.]

Second layer: Zender

While the original version of 'Winterreise' - voice and piano - marches deathlessly on, it seems to be one of those masterpieces that compels artists to get under its bonnet and tinker with it. Perhaps it's human nature to want to understand or explain how perfection can occur. (The other examples that leap to mind are Bach's works for solo violin or solo cello, constantly cropping up in versions on other instruments because their magnetic pull is too great for musicians to resist.) To my limited knowledge, 'Winterreise' - or parts of it - has been arranged for solo piano, piano trio, string quartet ... and, here, chamber orchestra.

Zender's arrangement dates back to 1993. Before hearing it, I wondered to what extent it would be a 'deconstruction' or dismantling of the original, but I think it is in fact a work of ardent respect. Instruments are used where appropriate to create sound-effects. Elements here and there feel tweaked and tampered with, but the most deliberately obvious 'sabotage', for shock value, are the few moments where the singer gives full vent to their anguish, departing from the melody into a cry or roar.

This is probably one reason why the key influence on the piece for me is Weill/Weimar, with moodswing winds and accordion providing that distinctive, sinister allure. It's a perfect match for 'Winterreise', with its queasy, nihilistic beauty... that placing of resolve, even humour alongside a knowing fear or despair.

(This image is by Tristram Kenton / Lightmap.)

Third layer: Jones, Bostridge

At the Barbican Theatre, then, for 'The Dark Mirror', a production - or perhaps 'realisation' - of Zender's 'Winterreise', directed by Netia Jones and performed by tenor Ian Bostridge, with the Britten Sinfonia, conducted by Baldur Bronnimann.

The stage is almost bare, but for a tree on one side, and the orchestra on the other. Central is a huge, black rectangle (defined at its edges by small bright lights), with a platform crossing it at an angle. As the first song, 'Gute Nacht', begins - stretched into agonising sparseness - a spotlight slowly illuminates IB, sitting on a chair near the top of the platform. He sings with his face still in shadow, until delivering the first of Zender's jarring howls - when he turns to face the audience, and we can properly see he's in black tie, with white face make-up rendering his features gaunt and eyes cavernous. Bleached-out footage of a howling wolf plays behind him in the white of his spotlight. The effect is genuinely chilling, and the silent audience are hooked from that point on.

Bostridge has an especially close relationship with 'Winterreise'. I believe he has sung it for at least as long as he's been a professional (just over 20 years), performed and toured it with a number of pianists, and recorded it twice: a recital performance with Leif Ove Andsnes on piano, and some years before that, in a film - a kind of extended classical version of a 'pop video', semi-dramatised with sumptuous visual effects and an incredibly youthful-looking IB, already nearing his mid-30s, accompanied on piano by Julius Drake. (It's available on DVD in a bargain package with his recordings of all three Schubert song cycles, should you fancy a look.) Most recently, he's written an entire book devoted to 'Winterreise', with the revealing sub-title 'Anatomy of an Obsession'.

Bostridge is a 'love him or hate him' singer (I'm in the former camp), who makes a beautiful sound but sometimes chooses not to - in moments of high intensity or stress in a performance, he'll unleash an uglier timbre or increase his already hyperactive stage movements. I'm all for this - I can't shake the feeling that Schubert would've approved of someone giving themselves up so completely to the euphoria/tragedy of his lieder that (a) they look like they might need medical attention afterwards and (b) they seem to not care less about whether you like what they're doing or not. So detractors might see him as 'mannered' or 'aloof', but if so, I regard this as completely performance-enhancing, and tend to sit enthralled at his recitals.

Netia Jones (who combines video art with her live stage direction), recognising the vice-like grip 'Winterreise' has on the singer - and in particular seizing on the existence of the 1997 film - has created a concept that will only work with IB at its centre. Once we get going into the cycle proper, the bare rectangle on stage reveals jagged black divisions that look like cracks, as excerpts from the film are projected behind our 'live' Bostridge. The man himself goes through three outfits, which seem to carry personas with them: the cabaret singer of the opening; then - in a brilliant visual coup - he appears in the same outfit we've been seeing him wear in the film projection; then, finally, he emerges in modern white tie.

Jones weaves cleverly-shot new footage into the backdrop, so that not only does the IB on stage look up (as well as back) at his younger self, he 'enters' the film to confront him on-screen. This highlights an element of bravery in Bostridge's performance: clearly, he is not by any means 'old' - but he must be well aware of the startling difference between the 'boy' in the video and the artificially-aged character he is now portraying.

This doesn't serve to make one want to put Bostridge in a care home - it's more to do with emphasising how much of his life has been consumed by 'Winterreise'. We're led to infer that Bostridge cannot escape the piece and has more or less become one with it, even absorbed into it. (This idea of finding autobiographical aspects in one's repertoire reminds me again of Alice Coote - specifically her excellent recital 'Being Both', which used some gloriously-sung Handel to convey the effect regular playing of both male and female roles had on the performer's identity.) In his third 'character', he has music on a stand as a prop - which he deliberately fumbles and drops, drifting from being rooted to the spot, into his more usual, mobile performance style. Has he fully 'become' the traveller, always destined to sing the same cycle, over and over? He makes his way through the Britten Sinfonia, half-onstage as if a character themselves, waiting in the wings - and in superb 'voice' throughout.

I felt that Jones did brilliantly by her leading man. With Bostridge there in the flesh, it felt like she could focus on bringing the themes alive visually around him. The evening was flamboyantly cinematic, conjuring up the Weimar effect as film noir, with IB frozen in searchlights, or trapped in broken-shard images: Orson Welles might've been pleased to see his Third Man get together with his Lady of Shanghai in this way. Equally, the English surtitles were projected within the screen rather than above it, in arresting upper case - impossible not to think of those great Saul Bass title sequences for (among others) Hitchcock... which inevitably made me think about 'Vertigo', that ruthless study of a man drawn into re-living part of his life...

I suspect one could go on finding associations like this - for example, was the single tree on stage (which Bostridge didn't really acknowledge) a nod to Beckett's Godot, where the travellers never get anywhere, and one never arrives?

This kind of thing - references to other media outside the work being performed - comes with risks attached and can fall flat. But I felt that 'The Dark Mirror' admirably escaped the potential clichés and pitfalls of 'trying to make the work relevant to a modern audience/culture', and the cliches that sometimes entails. Instead, it did a great job of showing just how many of our contemporary visual and musical techniques are relevant to 'Winterreise' and its unending greatness.

Saturday 14 May 2016

Picture this

As regular passers-by will know, I also use the Specs blog to chronicle my other main pastime outside all the music: photography. Portrait photography, in particular - especially as I'm lucky enough to have a number of friends who have become willing and creative subjects. I find the whole collaborative experience incredibly rewarding: everyone brings not just a different personality to the session, but also ideas about self-presentation, costuming, art direction, or a mix of all these things ... often changing themselves from shoot to shoot - or even shot to shot!

I'm currently working on a project that I now know will take me at least a couple of years - especially as other sessions crop up that are quite separate. I keep trying not to give chapter and verse until more of the results coalesce (I don't want to jinx it!) but it requires all of the folk taking part to assume a 'character'. My friend Ellie's persona here is basically of someone achieving a certain level of fame. As such, she begins photographic life as a tomboy, with an air of studied cool (E carries this off brilliantly). Inevitably, as this fictional 'career' continues, she becomes increasingly 'styled' - but we wanted to imagine how the character could go on a visual journey like that and still manage to keep control of her own look and attitude throughout. (Several women were inspirational figures for this, but clues to one of them might be the title of this post, and the occasional, deliberate use of parallel lines...)

We ended up doing this in a completely jumbled-up order. So, shots 1 to 13 are my working record of our most recent day's work. It was a session full of fortuitous moments - I won't say how many takes it took to get a black cab in shot 2, while shot 5 was set up with Ellie more or less unable to see where I was pointing the lens and me holding the camera aloft, unable to see what I was capturing. I was thrilled, however, with how she was able to 'lock into' the persona for every photo. Shots from 14 onwards - if you'll indulge me - are selected pictures from previous posts, which can now be placed in a correct 'running order' to show something of how the sequence will eventually work. (If you would like to see more from those older sessions, please look here and here.) Thanks to Ellie for playing such a great part. I won't interrupt the images with further text - I hope you enjoy them.



Friday 6 May 2016

Voice squad: ENO's 16/17 season

Yesterday, English National Opera announced its 2016/17 season.

It's impossible for me to consider the new line-up in a context-free 'bubble' - many of you will know (especially if you've read this blog for a while) that ENO faces serious financial difficulties. The company is the victim of severe funding cuts from the Arts Council, a move that in turn appears to be meant as some kind of wake-up call in the light of past mismanagement. (There is allegedly all sorts of murkiness here which I've no intention of raking up or speculating about.)

However, the new top brass have explicitly made a grave error of judgement - wholly in keeping with a hard-nosed, short-termist, number-crunching attitude but showing zero idea of how artistic endeavours actually come into being... by targeting the chorus for 'cost efficiencies'. This plan will result in the loss of several chorus members and leave the remainder on part-year contracts. (The spurious notion is that the chorus are apparently 'not working' when not physically treading the boards of the Coliseum, their home venue. First - this is untrue, as anyone practising to keep a voice in shape or preparing for a part would tell you. Second - the relative security of full-time employment enhances bonding and working methods within a group - with this chorus being a shining example of how a tight-knit artistic community can produce such consistently outstanding performances.)

It's important to underline that this is not just 'any' chorus. They are on the chorus shortlist for this year's International Opera Awards, and with the ENO orchestra jointly won this year's Olivier Award for 'Outstanding Achievement in Opera'. They are world-class, among the very best anywhere on the planet at what they do - which is all the more reason to wonder at their treatment. What kind of employer imposes penalties on its best performers?

It's important to re-state this, because I'm about to encourage you to go to as much as possible of ENO's new season. I don't want anyone to confuse this with endorsement for the board's approach - it's the magnificent performers I support. This is the arts, and sanctions will not work. I plan to see any many of the productions as possible, and want you to do the same, for two main reasons:
  • I think what is there looks brilliant. I realise that reviving recent productions and kicking the season off with probably two of the most popular operas ever is 'safe', and probably financially-driven or at least prudent. But what we have is actually a terrific season for a relative 'rookie' with opportunities to see great operas, legendary productions and still go out on a limb or two.
  • It's never been more important to get people into ENO. We can't afford to take a superb company like this for granted. The bodies you'd expect to give it aid will not - and all the blog posts, tweets, and letters to the Times in the world are no substitute for buying a ticket.
It's been noted that there's possibly less 'adventurous' programming than might've been expected - but I wonder if that's actually a bit misleading. There's less of everything. (The stated intention is to build the number of productions back up again.) It's a short season, because in summer 2017, the plans are to take ENO out to other venues - including a new chamber opera at the Hackney Empire and 'The Dream of Gerontius', semi-staged at the Southbank Centre - and, presumably, rent the Coliseum out to money-spinning musicals, or similar.

(Coliseum image from ENO website - could not see photo credit.)

I'm actually quite keen on the idea of getting opera into more unusual venues and perhaps surprising some unsuspecting listeners. High-profile efforts along these lines would include the Royal Opera heading into the Roundhouse and the Globe ... but let's not also forget Opera North's appearances at the Latitudes festival. The more people that have the opportunity to hear ENO's wonderful singers and musicians, the better. (And the more work there is for them, the better, too.)

In the meantime, here is what will play at the Coliseum between September 2016 and March 2017:

  • Mozart's 'Don Giovanni' - new production.
  • Puccini's 'Tosca' - revival.
  • Bizet's 'The Pearl Fishers' - revival.
  • Berg's 'Lulu' - new production.
  • Verdi's 'Rigoletto' - revival.
  • Gilbert & Sullivan's 'The Pirates of Penzance' - revival.
  • Ryan Wigglesworth's 'The Winter's Tale' - new opera!
  • Handel's 'Partenope' - revival.
I won't repeat all the details here because I would much rather you head over to the website and browse the details for yourself. However, the casts ENO attracts are tremendous - across the productions, just the superb singers I happen to know (and remember I'm still something of a newbie) include: Mary Bevan, Sophie Bevan, Allan Clayton, Sarah Connolly, Gwyn Hughes Jones, Iain Paterson, Christopher Purves, Christine Rice, Andrew Shore, Nicky Spence, Willard White... on top of their incredible support team. [LATE EDIT: Since first posting this, I've been alerted to some interesting points about the operas chosen - please see the 'extra' section at the end.]

It's also worth pointing out a few nuggets, perhaps:
  • The Mike Leigh-directed 'Pirates of Penzance' is ENO's most successful production, so if you fancy it, get in before it sells out again.
  • The production of 'Rigoletto' is the now-legendary Jonathan Miller production (updating it to a film noir / gangster scenario) - I believe this was thought retired, so again, go while you can.
  • Operatic explorers will hopefully flock to Berg's 'Lulu' (I've yet to see it) - and a brand new opera in the shape of 'The Winter's Tale'. I've never been let down by a new opera at ENO (for example, 'Thebans' or 'The Gospel According to the Other Mary' - partly because the chorus and orchestra seize upon them with the same enthusiasm, gusto and dedication they give to the 'classics').
So, what are you going to see? Take people. If you like something, recommend it. Or better still, go again with the person to whom you've raved about it. I might even condone mild kidnapping. Do you know someone who wants to get into opera - or showing flickers of interest? (In my case, this is my mum and dad, which could prove interesting. Might not take them to 'Lulu'.) 'Don Giovanni', 'Tosca' or 'Rigoletto' will do very well. Especially if your companions like thrillers, and 'Rigoletto' in particular for lovers of old movies.

It's the best place I can think of to 'discover' opera - sung in English (but still with surtitles to help you out), to the finest artistic standards by reliably brilliant performers. Accessible - but also impeccable.


* * *
LATE EDIT: Apart from the reference to this footnote, the above post is essentially as I originally wrote it, and I stand by what it says. I was trying to genuinely show optimism for the season and encourage as many of you as possible to support the work, without downplaying the ongoing dismal treatment of the chorus. However, I've since benefited from others' greater knowledge.

Ruth Elleson is one of social media's great champions of opera, combining an encyclopedic knowledge of both opera and its houses, with enormous reserves of support and enthusiasm. (If you have any interest in the subject, please head over to Twitter and follow her.) With her permission, I'm posting a capture of an exchange (from a separate forum) where - as a chorus singer with various ensembles herself - Ruth has noticed, and pointed out, how little use the new season seems to make of the chorus. All I can do is re-double my efforts to support them publicly, make sure my bum is on plenty of their seats over the season ... and carry on watching the situation closely. Many thanks for sharing this, Ruth.

Monday 2 May 2016

Majestic airs: the new Trembling Bells mini-album

00:00 - The band fades in, shuddering and shimmering into life. One guitar feels its way carefully towards a melody, almost hesitant, as if the song is already there and they just need to reach it. The other guitar provides the rhythmic pulse, as the drums are all controlled chaos and texture.

00:54 - One of the most arresting opening lyrics in recent memory - establishing a firm sense of place, but refusing to fix a time: "England was aghast / Hallucinating future kings from its football teams, and its Viking past." The bass anchors the vocal melody, while the other instruments - as if subservient to the voice - keep edging their way around it, etching in the space.

01:27 - The voice begins a skyscraping section of the verse - as if to bear it aloft, the drums create a tumult, almost a free-jazz rumble, retreating again as the vocals return to earth.

01:56 - The vocal melody takes yet another, lower turn. The drums take the high ground, chattering with light cymbal taps, as the guitars seem to finally assert themselves - the lead line following the voice note for note, while the vibrations of its pulsing partner emerge a little further (think of a less obtrusive 'How Soon Is Now?' judder).

02:30 - About one note before the verse can resolve, a medieval-sounding organ pipes up with a brand new hook, silencing everything we've heard so far, until - again, about a note away from the point you'd expect -

02:44 - The band suddenly takes over again, rocking the original melody, with the drums finally playing a sturdy beat as the guitars - now non-identical twins - seem to take simultaneous solos, pushing the tune further into its own corners. However, the previously dominant voice leaves them to it - as if it's left the room for a bit and the group can let themselves off the leash.

03:40 - The vocal returns with the same lower section as at 01:56, and brilliantly, the band fall back into submission, with the lead guitar slightly more forthright in tracking the voice. However, the seeds of rebellion remain, as the 'pulsing' guitar from before is now a distorted depth-charge, running a steady stream of 'fuzz' beneath the singing, like a coiled spring.

04:11 - Sure enough, when the section reaches the same 'unresolved' end, said guitar steals the lead, playing the organ figure from before. Gradually the rest of the band re-join it, the 'old' lead guitar building up a gradual rhythmic head of steam, drums shuffling, and the bass taking its turn higher up, dancing around the vocals ...

04:28 - ... which usher in a completely new tune over the guitar line, a call-and-response upbeat litany between the lead singer and her colleagues. Whatever increasingly angelic leaps the voice takes, it takes a turn back down towards the others when they join in. Finally, at ...

05:19 - ... the very first lines return over an echoing signal - but slow to a halt a few phrases in, again unresolved, as the song ebbs away.


'England Was Aghast' is the second track on the new release from Trembling Bells, a mini-album called 'Wide Majestic Aire'. You may remember my enthusing greatly about their full album from last year 'The Sovereign Self' - and on the surface, the latest record is a kind of companion piece, containing songs of similar vintage to 'Self' but not quite fitting in with its vibe. For a 'mini' album, 'WMA' is actually a generous helping - over half-an-hour, with seven songs that are (on balance) a bit shorter than the eight epics on 'Self'. I also believe that 'WMA' is very much its own thing, and that anyone tempted to pass over it as if it was a glorified EP or bundle of out-takes would be making a very serious mistake...

Creatively, Trembling Bells are constantly moving forward. When they first started touring 'The Sovereign Self', I think I counted one older song in their set. At their most recent London gig, the oldie had disappeared, and we heard two songs so new, they aren't even on 'WMA'. Even their debut album 'Carbeth' took its folk-rock starting point into early/classical (thanks to Lavinia Blackwall's gorgeously versatile voice and suitably sacred organ) and jazz (courtesy of Alex Neilson's unconventional songwriting and infinitely subtle drumming). By degrees, their sound has expanded with their ideas, until 'Sovereign Self' launched into a near-prog style - it was as if the band had achieved a kind of lift-off, the songs vaster in scale and scope, arrangements now full-to-bursting but with idiosyncracies intact.

(Photo by me - at Café Oto, 14 April 2016.)

But 'Wide Majestic Aire' is a different beast. The title track has been around for some time and, in line with their usual tendencies, they've played it live for a while. When I first heard them perform it, I couldn't hear all the lyrics and had no way of knowing if 'Aire' had an 'e' on the end or not. Its stately, anthemic progress certainly suggested to me that it might be about music itself, a song celebrating songs. Now I've been able to listen to the track more intimately, it feels like Alex N has managed to write simultaneously about the river as a real place, and as a metaphorical channel (ho ho ho) for the creative impulse. Twin muses are present - mother and lover - as well as places (Yorkshire, Oxford) and artistic influences (Larkin, Blake, Lorca - and further on, Turner).

The three poets mentioned seem particularly fitting, in that Bells songs inhabit a realm with room for the personal and mundane alongside the phantasmagorical and surreal. (It reminds me how drawn I am towards bands and artists that seem to create their own 'universes' - see also the Handsome Family, Sieben, Espers, Clutch...) Every song on 'WMA' explicitly cites one or more real places, but the words blur time like a lyrical TARDIS, with folkish natural references colliding with hard contemporary images (in 'Show Me A Hole' a butterfly meets its end on a riot shield). It's as if a band from the future is creating/reviving new folk music based on our present. The way AN manages to meld this intricate framework to ruthless self-examination knits the record together.

'WMA' - setting it apart from 'Sovereign Self' and treating it as a 'whole' work in its own right - seems to show a band embracing its myriad different selves. That debut, 'Carbeth', haunts the record - most explicitly in the beautiful sequel track, 'Swallows of Carbeth' - but neither the girl nor the birds in the song are 'coming back'. The early music influences from that album resurface here, in particular the organ sound: in two instances, its ancient strains are taken over, then assimilated by modern instruments - the guitar making it redundant in 'England Was Aghast' (as I detailed above) or in 'Show Me A Hole', when after the entire lyric is sung over the organ, the band simply pick up on its trilling hook and blast through the outro. Only in the eerie 'I Love Bute' does the swirling keyboard reach the end of the song unscathed.

Even the sequencing reflects this push and pull between 'old' and 'new' sound. The penultimate track, 'The Day Maya Deren Died' is the latest in Alex N's occasional series of unaccompanied vocals, but cleverly forms part of a narrative into the closer 'Marble Arch' - probably the most 'rock' arrangement on the record (piano replacing organ, a searing guitar riff acting as chorus). By the way, if you buy 'WMA' on disc, there are six tracks - you'll need to visit your download provider of choice to get 'The Day Maya Deren Died', and I can't urge you strongly enough to place it correctly, as track 6 between 'I Love Bute' and 'Marble Arch', before playing.

It's important to stress, I think, that 'Wide Majestic Aire' is a beautiful listen. Where 'The Sovereign Self' surged, this seduces. The songs are generally slower, wanting you to tarry rather than tearing off, and the sparser instrumentation thrusts the melodies forward. Lavinia B has arguably never sung better - always something akin to perfection, her technique just feels extraordinary: her leaps up to the stratosphere in 'Swallows', followed almost immediately by near-conversational low tones with no hint of 'transition' or any interruption in the flow of the notes. The way she can still sound delicate while slicing through the organ chords in 'I Love Bute'. My favourite moment in the title track is during some alternative lyrics for the closing chorus repeat: at one point she sings 'time, it took its toll', letting the phrase fall silent - but at the same point in the melody the following time she sings 'a revenant in flight' - and she makes the word 'flight' last, soar without breaking, into the next line.

I laid the detail of 'England Was Aghast' before you at the start of this post, simply as a way of showing how Trembling Bells are one of the most ideas-rich, interesting bands around, how much care they take over the arrangements, and how it's possible to keep listening and just find more and more references, connections, sparks of genius.

On this latest release, they've deliberately referenced not 'the' past, so much as their past, shining a light directly onto 'Carbeth' as if to shorten its shadow. So much of the album demonstrates their 'wide, majestic' new sound finding room to absorb and make use of their early features; so many of the lyrics conjure up a unique 'now/then' mash-up. It doesn't feel like nostalgia, or fall-back; it exudes so much exhilarating confidence, it's more like a reckoning. It's a wonderful experience for this listener, and long-time fan - it underlines how I love the band they are today as much as I love the band they were then.