During the Coronavirus pandemic the debate about the importance and the power of the arts has reared its head again in the national press and on social media. Sadly this is due to a lack of funding from the British government to support the arts sector during these incredibly challenging times. The reason I raise this is down to the fact that a lot of that debate is centred on financial arguments and economic reasoning. However, every so often a piece of art comes along that reminds you of the importance of art for art’s sake and the power that such art can and should have in both society and in an individual’s life.
The album Stories From An Island by SAD MAN and Francis Lowe is such a piece of art. This album is the third installation of the excellent Cue Dot Series from Cue Dot Records. Yet again, the fact that a new, independent label is working with artists of this calibre is a real testament to the vision and quality of the Cue Dot label.
SAD MAN is the music producer Andrew Spackman whose music regularly features on national radio including on Stuart Maconie’s BBC 6 Music Freak Zone. Francis Lowe is a respected writer, actor and theatrical director who has worked on all sorts of projects from working in TV and films in LA to acting on the stage in the UK. Together they’ve collaborated to create a record of six individual stories of a strange island where magic, the supernatural and tales of the unexpected intertwine across time.
The album starts with The Ferry and immediately Lowe’s storytelling sets the tone whilst the mysterious music creates the atmosphere. There’s a dark energy which is sustained throughout the album. The narrator tells us about the brochure saying you could walk across the island in an hour but he’s been driving in a straight line for two hours. For me, that opening was so important. It instantly sets a scene of haunting surrealism and makes you want to find out more; to take this journey into the shadows. This opening story is full of strange characters and striking imagery, most notably the burning oil tanker out at sea next to the ferry our raconteur needs to catch. Somehow it creates an electronic Wickerman vibe, full of burning imagery and peculiar locals.
The next track Chance is an equally strange affair, with another broken down car, a weird house where the protagonist is hosted for tea, family histories, a daughter called Chance, a repetitive almost techno like beat carries the story along at one point and then what sounds like a ticking clock disturbs the nerves. Nothing quite makes sense but the beauty of these stories is that they can make sense if you want them to. It feels like you have a choice, to delve in and find themes, overlaps and meaning in these stories or you can enjoy them and the electronic soundscape purely on its own terms. Whilst you’d never classify this album as anything like ‘easy listening’ it is surprisingly therapeutic to just let yourself be absorbed into these curious tales.
In Teeth there is an explosion and you find yourself not on land but out at sea. Is it the oil tanker? Themes start developing – fire and explosions, teeth, children. For all the music is often dark and swirling, there are moments of exquisite fragility and tenderness buried amongst the ambient layers that form these unique performance pieces.
Diary is perhaps the most unsettling piece on the record. Lines jump out at you from the mind-bending background sound; ‘Last entry in my journal’ ‘The experiment is a failure’. The islanders are seemingly attacking his compound and it feels like a siege. The music mutates to sound like radio interference. There’s an implied violence here and it is completely gripping. The mangled music transforms again and you’re in a frenzied digital nightmare that is somehow almost consoling. As the track ends you’re left with the distinct impression that somebody has gone under – whether ‘under’ is to death, under the waves, or to some sort of ethereal underworld feels completely open to interpretation.
Lammy is different again, opening with an electronic organ which leads you into ten minutes of storytelling madness traversing diverse aural architecture and soundscape vistas. The final track Witness reminded me slightly of the Erland Cooper album Sule Skerry, as it explores the history, identity and folklore of this strange mythical island. Again, there is a mix of musical terrain here, always complimenting the story, vital in the construction of the incredible atmosphere created by this record. As the creepy jangling piano gives way to a trip hop style beat, the listener senses that the journey is almost over, and what a journey it has been.
You can listen to this album time after time and take different things away from it each time, which is why I’ve tried not to go into too much detail about each track. It’s cinematic in scope, brilliantly written and composed, and its definitely leaves it mark on the listener. Part homage to folklore, the occult and the traditions of magical storytelling, part exploration of the human psyche; ultimately it is something quite unique. Bigger than the sum of its murky and mysterious parts, Stories From An Island is an endlessly fascinating album.