“His debut album is a sprawling, largely instrumental affair with many threads: Eastern-tinged psychedelia, hazy, pastoral folk and dusty desert blues. And they are expertly combined, with cantering acoustic guitars and propulsive grooves preventing the sound from ever lapsing into proggy torpor.”
So said the Observer Music Monthly back in 2007 when Rick Tomlinson and co. unveiled their first full length as Voice of the Seven Woods. Fast forward two and a half years (a few cdr’s, a ten inch, a seven inch or two and a rather apt alteration of name) and you wouldn’t even countenance the idea of a “proggy torpor” whilst listening to these ten songs. They take those aforementioned elements, retaining the focus on instrumentals, and they hardboil them like misguided spiritual alchemists. The resulting explosions of alloy and lore are compelling to say the least. Groovy too. No torpor, they don’t leave any time for that kind of malarkey.
I can see what the Observer writer was implying, on that phenomenal debut album (which was also self-titled, albeit back in the Woods days of course) there were times in which you could contemplate what was occurring. You had time to react and digest the sonic elements, what you might call moss-gathering if we fully extend our psych-folk sensibilities. But this music is made of stone, and it’s rolling. Rolling so fucking fast that I am forced to buck a habit and write this while not listening to the record.
Usually I try and allow the mood of a record to influence a reviews tone, but considering the raw power of this album's first half and the occasionally unsettling wooziness of its second I decided to forego the attempt to spill thoughts at the speed these boys are lobbing hard-psych grenades over the barricades. To try and keep up would be futile, to try and compete would be folly.
If you don’t get excited by the idea of lacerating psych-rock where electric guitars sound like Egyptian and Turkish instruments take a leaf out of Naked Lunch and start devouring fuzz boxes, where drums pound at the clip of an Arabian stallion and the bass player plays enough notes to create something more akin to a rolling swell of low frequencies, then this might not be for you. In case I haven’t made it clear, it is most definitely for me.
So if you (like me!) digest albums in their given form you won’t be able to fully appreciate how good the closing track ‘Disappearances’ truly is until you (like me now) put it on out of context. This is where the record lets up and breathes, by which point you’re exhausted from shagging Megaliths while helping to carry them up Windmill Hill in the midst of a reverse Crusade. But my oh my, the air is clear. It’s like a San Franciscan haze settling on the Scottish farm house that the Incredible String Band lived in, the one that’s just over the hill from Samye Ling, the Buddhist monastery. Tomlinson layers his fine English voice and his snappy, Jansch like finger-plucks of acoustic guitar to masterly effect. It’s as divine as anything on David Crosby’s If Only I Could Remember My Name but there is an air of clarity rather than obscurity, peace via scouring, rather than peace via doping. Dreamy nonetheless.
It seems like Tomlinson and regular collaborators Chris Walmsley on drums and Rory Gibson on bass, are trying to blow out the cobwebs with a jet engine. The result is incredibly exciting, a foreground record you might say, and not easily digestible. When the cobwebs are gone, the crisp light pours in with abundance. I do feel slightly embarrassed by this slew of twenty-something-male analogies concerning force and the like, but to sell this as the next Emperor in the ongoing fall of the limp-wristed Freak-Folk empire would be a disservice to everyone involved. It transcends that chronology. It’s no wonder Tomlinson points to “underground” Brit-Folk legend Roy Harper as a profound influence. To me they both seem to be in the habit of questioning their creations even whilst in the act of creating them. It’s no belaboured self-consciousness though, it’s a bluster that doesn’t trust smug satisfaction; resulting in a kind of writhing, listless musical spirit.
Where were we? I’ve put the album on again… Uh-oh! But it’s not all like that. Once you start loving the hot-poker wielding surgeon that is ‘The Burning Mountain’ and its partner in crime ‘Kommune’, once you can at least grip the thing long enough to stay on the ride, you start finding all sorts of detail. But Lo and Behold, there’s an eye in the midst of the storm, the outstanding ‘Dry Leaves’. A solo acoustic piece so well weighted that it leaves a distinct impression of tranquil beauty without many hints of its construction. Tomlinson is not so keen on showing off his musical seams like battle scars; these songs have been executed cleanly, even the smoky dirges that arose from these semi-spontaneous recording sessions have a crisp determination and never wallow in spaciousness.
It’s not that I prefer the tranquil acoustic ventures, the deepest and likely the long-term interest cuts come between ‘Dry Leaves’ and its sandal-slapped partner at the end. Here is where you find the Kraut and Improv influences coming to the surface, most notably the fittingly titled pair of ‘Cylinders’ and the multifaceted ‘Set Fire to the Forest’. These are the kind of inclinations that led an unsettled Voice of the Seven Woods to turn a prominent Green Man set into a twenty minute splurge of improvised noise and feedback when the in-house equipment turned all to murk…
That was my first experience of their music, and it hooked me. It stood out from the self-declared Folky-Dolkyness that pervaded at the time. It still does. Voice of the Seven Thunders is a fine album, one which retains all manner of mystery even after repeated listens. I feel like I am still yet to gauge its weight, despite a month spent with it. It is no better a companion than the first full length, but it is an equal and more importantly not a clone, which suggests that even 2012’s Voice of the Seven Bunny Infested Flying Saucers self-titled debut might be worth a listen or two.