ALBUM REVIEW: Arch Garrison – ‘The Bitter Lay’: a psychedelic folk song of the Wiltshire downs

The Breakdown

Arch Garrison's third takes the deep English song of the chalk downs, burrows deep inside its DNA and also spins it off in pastoral psych new routes. Beguiling and enveloping

ARCH GARRISON is, in some ways, the flipside of the coin to Craig Fortnam’s excellent, self-styled alternative chamber group North Sea Radio Orchestra. But it’d be wrong to think of them as the ‘other’ band; although perhaps it’s the latter outfit who claim the higher profile, they’re both remarkably potent musical creations.

North Sea Radio Orchestra have released five albums, beginning with their self-titled debut for Oof! back in 2006; Arch Garrison, two – that is, until next Friday when the third full-length release, The Bitter Lay, will be released and be available to grace your shelves should you appreciate leftfield folksiness with a hauntological twist. 

They’re a duo of finely honed instrumental texture-craft, are Arch Garrison, so before exploring further let’s take a look at the deliverers of the sonics herein. Craig sings and plays guitar, piano, Philicorda organ, monosynth and percussion; his partner in this project, James Larcombe, adds melodeon, dulcitone, wind organ, Philicorda organ, monosynth and piano.

As previously mentioned, there’s a real English folk-wyrd/wyrd-folk pervading Arch Garrison’s work. Of corners turned on leaf-festooned lanes as dusk approaches; forgotten copses, holloways, the land resonant with the whisper of song, if only you’d listen.

And Craig can be found, invariably, tracing those long old drove roads and connecting valley tracks that are such a feature of the English chalk downs – in Craig’s specific locale, south Wiltshire. This is where the Arch Garrison sound arises: in the ploughline and pylon line, among the shady, sudden valleys and bleak church towers.

Let’s delay no more. A journey awaits.

The Bitter Lay commences in the brief, almost Goblin shade of “Intromission”. An introduction and an immediate interlude; a recognition that the song has no ending, the music is an ever-present, which is tuned into by those of us who have the sight, the means. It’s filmic and would gain a release on Finders Keepers if it had been found nestling in a dusty corner of a Croatian market.

It knocks back the nettles and the stickybuds so we can enter into “Like A Diamond Bright”: you’ll find the official video for this one embedded below. This skirls into being on intricate and tricksy folk picking, “Your eye, like a diamond,” Craig intones, his voice unadorned in its Englishness. It’s a pretty ditty, but you can almost smell the land, the history, the forgotten tales encased in the melody, as in the novel Ulverton of fellow Wiltshire landscape explorer Adam Thorpe.

“Lady Young Ghost” is a sweet paean to some female, alive or dead, we’re unsure, which lends more eerieness; there’s a call to “dance round the stones, away from all misery” – a sarsen swirl. On this song, Craig’s accent seems to shift county.

The titular “The Bitter Lay” has more of an electric punch, moves towards a Richard Thompson feel. There’s a lovely and intricate riff, and Craig sings: ““I’ve been burning the dead wood – look, I find it lying around. It keeps me warm in the winter, it keeps me in the sight and sound. What could be better now?”. The small but absolutely vital minutiae of the life lived, the survival inherent at the root of everything. It morphs into a more off-kilter and synthy thing, explores a weirder atmosphere that leads down a choked packhorse track towards the British folk-horror film canon of the 70s. 

A shift of tone comes with the bright instrumental, “The More I Know” – music for a summer horse-trading up on the chalky heights, drunk on sun and love; but again, there’s a weirder world in those synths, peeping at you through the bindweed. The border between this world and that is very porous out here. There’s psychedelia herein, with perhaps the closest touchstones being Syd-era Pink Floyd; the Traffic who retreated to a haunted cottage in the Berkshire village of Aston Tirrold to write. It’s a psychedelia of the land and the lore around us.

Craig says: “It’s all about unexpected major chords, very much in the English psychedelic tradition. It’s about using a major chord where you would normally use a minor, something that can be traced from Purcell all the way through Vaughan Williams and Britten to early Pink Floyd and latterly, Cardiacs.” 

“How Will The Green Things Grow?”, festooned with a mannered, courtly melody and birdsong, distance, ragged guitar, sudden speeding of elision in the singing of lines; it pulls so deep into very old folk forms and wrenches right outside it, simultaneously. Who does Craig, in character, seek in rural fertility pleading of the lines: “I like to follow you over the land, up by the old Ox Drove and/ I’ll see a trace of you crossing the field, up by the Never-Know / If you never dig a hole how will your garden grow?”

“Open My Eye” is a beautiful sidestep into warm psych-country. There’s the smell of summer hay and the spice of foliage giving off its sunset scent in the shimmer. It gives way to the shroomy glide of “The Bell Underground”, all backwards-masked synths, distant church peals; a crisp chord progression finds bedrock for Craig to weave a tale of the subterranean that dips back in and out of more psych textures. “Church bell / In a cave underground,” he sings. Some mostly lost lore?

“Algae City” is another instrumental air for a summer high day; to your writer’s ears, there’s a very fine marriage between the Great English Songbook and a more Byrdsy glide and propulsion, particularly as the lead guitar spirals into a echo-warmed meander, lighting the way across the contours.

Album closer “There’s A Well Inside” returns to the simplicity of an agrarian life, in extended metaphor. ““There’s a well inside; fathoms fathoms deep /The water is still therein. The water I must draw to keep the garden green, grow the flower grow the green thing need / The thing we need,” and later: “I grew myself a boy, more precious than the world / He has a well of his own.” Fertility, of the land; fertility of the humans who work it; maybe even, if it’s not too much of a push, the need to seek the answers inside oneself. The verdancy of self-truth. 

The Bitter Lay was both and written and recorded near the first peak of All This, in March and June; but Craig says that although “ … technically a ‘lockdown record’, [it’s] not about lockdown in any way. However, lockdown has lent the album a certain intensity and introspection. All these songs about gardens, green things and an almost childlike focus on small growing things. Hunkering down!”

Arch Garrison and the North Sea Radio Orchestra have a devoted following. If you’re new to the nexus, then come in; you’ll find a record that slakes its thirst on the very finest English trad arr song structuring, and then graces it and spins it off in sometimes eerie, sometime trippy, sometimes folkloric directions.

It’s an album that knows that as soon as the hum of traffic is at your back, the land is unchanging, and it will bring its melodies to you as much as you bring your tread to it. 

Arch Garrison’s The Bitter Lay will be released on digital, CD and limited heavyweight vinyl formats on September 18th. You can order your copy at Arch Garrison’s Bandcamp page.

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1 Comment

  1. […] permit me to track back a little further so as to begin, the very end of last summer brought us The Bitter Lay, his tale of the English chalk downlands in partnership with multi-instrumentalist James Larcombe […]

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