ARCH GARRISON, whose lovely odyssey of modern Wessex psych-pastoralism The Bitter Lay we loved for all its exploration of thorny byways last year; a half-dozen or so long-playing outings in the North Sea Radio Orchestra; even back before the century’s turn, a solitary album with Shrubbies. In all these incarnations we’ve enjoyed and explored the particular aesthetic that Craig Fortnam brings to music, an appreciative chamber folk, alive with tradition and the England that gave rise to it, knowing that in those holloways and old ways that criss-cross the land, there still can be found pockets of that otherly vibe; diachronic, otherly, where folklore and myth of the land still have blood flowing in their veins.
What we haven’t had until now is Craig espousing a personal-political-pastoral vision as, well, Craig himself. Unadorned. Unmasked, partially, even; although with his first solo album, he does call on past collaborators stout and true to flesh out the palette and breathe sweet harmonic life into his compositions. There’s clarinettist Nicky Baigent, violinist Brian Wright, bassoonist Luke Crookes and cellist Harry Escott of his other orchestra of the sea; and from Arch Garrison, pianist James Larcombe.
Ark: a refuge, a preservation of the species, a battening down, even a fleeing; it’s a complex three-letter christening. And Ark finds Craig both musically diarising and seeking catharsis. He’s been adrift somewhat himself, and that’s even leaving aside the near-universal privations of the past year-plus, it’s also been a time of personal loss, and the hollowing change that precipitates to a life; in the past few years Craig has lost his brother, mother and dear friend Tim Smith, singer of Cardiacs.
The lyrical themes primarily concern feeling adrift, unsettled and unsure. We all know those feelings all too well right now. On “Ravensodd”, Craig sings: “No fixed position / Washed away by the Fludde / You can hear it coming if you listen…”; on “German Ocean” he finds himself “cast adrift … like a gull with a broken wing”.
Thus, while last year’s Arch Garrison album was wholly of and in immersed in the Wessex ridges and chalk downs, psychogeographically speaking, Ark is an album of the sea and the coast; specifically, the North Sea coasts of East Anglia and the fenlands, eroding at such a rate, Doggerland, the land bridge to the continent, long submerged; the low, haunted coast of W.G. Sebald’s book like no other, The Rings Of Saturn. A place where houses yaw and tip onto the beach for gradual dissolution. We’re thinking vulnerability, being undercut, endless change, uncertainty, as themes.
The title track is as good a place as any to begin, “Ark” setting the tonic chord and the theme. It comes with a visual aspect, which you can see below; watch as different iterations of Craig blur and wend us through a tune imbued with the clear, unsullied melodies of shires psych-folk, strumsome and melodically complex, Craig’s voice pure as he lays out his plan for an escape vessel, his art: the creative process and word cuckooing inside ‘ark’. It’s about how for Craig creating tunes acts as a kind of life raft, thus keeping his head above turbulent waters. “I will go and build myself an art, Two-by-two I’ll paint the people in,” he sings. He will gather the right people, as I think we’ve all being doing in the recent long months. There’s a middle break of fuzz-guitar chamber folk, grand and sonorous, and the song bowls forward with minstrelsy and idealistic revelation.
The following, fragmentary “The Gargoyle’s Seaweed Hair” lurches into a phantasmagorical baroque folk, like a drowned “I Am The Walrus”, barnacled with bassoon and complex minor intervals, giving way to the renaissance-courtly “Ravensodd”, which has a beautiful chamber-quartet breakdown from which it rebuilds to a “higher ground”. It laments the drowned Humberside village: “Could this be the wrath of God / Or just bad luck for Ravensodd?” queries Craig-as-cottar. The verse which Craig sings barely accompanied has a wonderful, salt-scoured, bleak and open quality. “German Ocean” takes the European name for the body of water directly east – an implicit expression of unity and inclusivity? – is a more introspective, almost bluegrass air, Craig at imaginary flight over waves of sparse guitar and deftly arranged strings: “I’m looking for a haven / Black as the dusty raven,” he appeals, a violin singing bittersweetly.
“Managed Decline On The Orford Ness”, a trippy soundscape inspired by that interstitial Suffolk shingle space, now a nature reserve but for decades a playground of the MOD, strewn with slowly crumbling concrete structures, begins as an undulating folk-electronica changeling, alive with dubby echo and a Boards of Canada-eerie modular sweep; tying in beautifully with the wartime relics in a bleak landscape. It mutates and shifts into another phase about a third of the way through, becoming a Play For Today-like, hauntological folk-rock glide, always the smell of moss and earth and response to place in its Canterbury-progressive cinemascope. It’s intricate, very filmic and seems to blend Public Service Broadcasting, Fairport and more. It comes back-bookended with the short but wholly atmospheric piano and guitar piece, “Crack Haven”.
“Strophic” has an oddly Pale Saints quality in the way it pulls an unusual folk melodic form into choirboy vocal purity, guitars trilling with a filigree arpeggio. Something about it reminds me so much of that band’s “Little Hammer”. It inhabits a clever space that’s very of a certain Englishness, very 1968 psychedelic, made more so by the candleflame of a churchy organ. It could so feature in a more innocent scene from a British folk horror, as there’s just this suggestion of older traditions and power in its lilt, something which Craig is a master of. One of the highlights of the album, and one which has a puzzling, addictive quality that’ll keep you coming back.
At almost nine minutes, “A Speck I Am” goes full bore for folk psychedelia, serenading in strings and an electric skirl of a main riff, hallucinatory effects, weaving string counterpoint, even birdsong. It finds common ground with the mellower edges of Rocket Recordings’ The Holy Family, and captures Craig at one of this sobering moments when you place yourself in the grander scheme of things and become vanishingly small: ““The meeting of the fresh and the salt/ The crumbling shore / Never felt like this before,” he wonders, the scales of human self-importance dropping away in the intense melodic threading, as Craig seems to approach and then back away from some revelatory engagement: “There’s something I wanted to say / But it’s not important, it doesn’t matter anyway.” There’s a resonant, gliding passage of drone that falls back towards a modernised trad melody, all fluid runs and strings and things, before another passage goes for an exploratory instrumental rock, time signatures coming and going with speed. It concludes as a string serenade, potently pretty and sad; hungry for some expansive prog-psych-folk? Step this way, good fellow.
Two shorter pieces raise the ramp on Ark: the bardic troubadour caress of “Heaven Knows”, which has a gorgeous duelling dual instrumental break, is as complex as anything herein, although stripped down; and the folk-classical instrumental delicacy of “Now Floods The Tempest High”, timeless, could’ve been rescued from a dark corner of Cecil Sharp House or written yesterday.
And therein lies the strength of what Craig brings in his music; it exists outside the predations and demands of strict linear chronology. At some moments here you’re in the 16th century, then the 17th, the 18th, and so on; the turn of the 20th, the late Sixties and early Seventies, now. Often, too, all within the strictures of one song.
While on the one hand he is absolutely located within the English folk tradition, you never get the sense of too-hallowed curation, the precious object handled delicately in lab gloves, as you sometimes do with, say, The Unthanks; yet it remains so wholly of it, but alive and vivacious, able to speak to us of our time but with roots curling deep within the soul and soil of the island. Lost, nameless balladeers, Alfred Bax, Vaughn Williams, Syd Barratt, Caravan, all stalk across this land; and Craig has a talent for perceiving the whole at once, collapsed together, within the form.
It’s now and it’s then, it’s here and it steps outside time, gives a reading of his world washed by metaphor, and it’s an album that’ll only really give up its secrets over a few listens. Prepare to drop a thoughtful anchor in this haven, begin to chart a finely wrought folk.
Craig Fortnam’s Ark will be released by Onomatopoeia Records digitally, on CD and on limited edition 140g aquamarine vinyl this Friday, July 16th; it’s available to order right now from Craig’s Bandcamp page.