Album review: Field Works – ‘Cedars’: Stuart Hyatt fuses cosmic Americana and Arabic sounds; the results are luscious

FIELD WORKS is less a band, more a collective exploration of the various musics that cross over and find each other out on the edges of their respective stylistic disciplines, fuse, enter the wider sphere of the ambient.

It’s all helmed by Indianapolis producer Stuart Hyatt, the man behind the Field Work curtain if you will, who began the series – this forthcoming album is the ninth instalment – in 2018, releasing Pogue’s Run digitally on Temporary Residence, and calling on the services of Kranky’s Benoit Pioulard, Eluvium and William Tyler, among many others, to flesh out his vision.

Since then there’s been digital explorations such as The National Road, featuring both Lali Puna and Nick Zammuto, formerly of The Books (whose album The Lemon Of Pink any self-respecting record collection absolutely needs); Katryn Aurelia Smith, Gazelle Twin and Pantha Du Prince came aboard for no.7, Initial Sounds; last year’s Ultrasonic graduated up to physical formatting, and is based for a sound source around the ultrasonic echolocations of the Indiana bat, modulated for human audibility and then fashioned into music by Mary Lattimore, Kelly Moran, Taylor Deupree, Sarah Davachi; others. It’s quite the thing then; quite the exploration for jaded ears.

Album the ninth in the series is soon to be upon us and is entitled Cedars; it seeks to combine cosmic Americana with Western ambient and Middle Eastern influences. Take a listen to the opening track and lead single, “La’ali”, below. Blissful tones sing out beneath Arabic poetry, intoned by Youmna Saba; little string interjections and pedal steel add other colours to an already bright palette. Then Youmna lilts, sings out; it’s a very beautiful thing.

And that’s the theme of this instalment of Field Works: combining cosmic Americana with Western ambient and Middle Eastern influences, layering pedal steel, banjo, oud, and hurdy-gurdy atop guitar drones to create a blissful, complex sonic space; all garlanded with Arabic and English poetry: a song cycle examining the planet’s ancient forests and our relationship to them.

For this dual-language release, Stuart Hyatt has assembled a supergroup of musicians, poets, and artists; the musician involved include Marisa Anderson, Fadi Tabbal, Dena El Saffar, Danny Paul Grody, Bob Hoffnar, Tomás Lozano, Nathan Bowles, Alex Roldan, Youmna Saba, and Stuart himself.

Additionally, illustrator María Medem brings poetry to life in the accompanying full-colour comic book. As we said: quite the thing.

Presuming you’ve bedded yourself in with the dawn wonder of “La’ Ali” – and such a beautiful thing it is, too – let us proceed to glide deeper into the album; it’s 14 tracks, none breaking the three-minute mark and many much shorter; but as we all know through lived experience, linear time can mean nothing in the depths of experience. And each track herein – actually let’s dispense to some degree with the idea of individual tracks, since I’m pretty certain this is an album to be experienced fluvially, as a whole – has a depth beyond the boundaries of the clock watch. It seems to be constructed as a vinyl experience: the first septet of tracks in Arabic, the latter half in English.

Within that shimmering whole, and following on from “La’ Ali”, we’re led eagerly on by our hosts, through the halcyon tremolo shimmer of “Thāk-al-yawm”, all stilling rapturous drone and then into a deeper exposition on “”Badron wa Qina‛” (which translates, as ‘Be quick and strong’). “’Arāha” (‘See her’) is a ghazal of tremendous and warming sweep, that poem hitting a meter that skips over the singing, partially acoustic blur behind.

“In‛ikās” is languid and otherly, a deep meditation, vocals a confessional whisper, almost as with “Otterley”, from Cocteau Twins’ 1984 masterpiece Treasure; your ears will be stirred at the end by that decaying slur of violin. “’Aylūll” opens in a different and more consanguineous musical palette, but that thrilling drone of the eternal still glimmers away, so many depths, the catchbreath of a dawn or a dusk, the moment of change captured like Paul Horn.

“Ar-raḥīl” gives that deep vibration, that hum composed of so many instrumental parts, full head, and the poetry becomes an impressionist fragment within that whole; and the Arabic side closes in the blinding sun meditation of “Ḥalaqah ’Azaliyyah”, one of the most beautiful things you’ll hear this year, reaching out to the sound worlds of William Tyler, The KLF, Slowdive, others, blurring and uniting different strands in a shoegazey, eternal cosmos of delicious and humanistic sound.

There’s actually a little sense of dislocation as we flip sides, digitally or not; for “The sharp smell of cedar” opens with a bright but more straight country feel, all swift arpeggio and a canter of banjo, though that pedal steel is still rosy like a midsummer sunset. It’s a related aesthetic which places itself immediately in a leftfield pastoral paean to the land and the culture which stems from living in close harmony with it. Thus into “Before we’re born”, which examines the cycle of birth and death, of tree rot and spirits.

And so we proceed through part the second, which does seem, to these ears, to be more of a suite than the first, just; a suite beautifully constructed, our declamatory vocalist H.C. McEntire the perfectly accented voice of the country. “The scars of recent history” talks of mining despoilation; that “without any shame, we can construct a machine that makes mountains disappear”. That line hangs, that we have no regard for the truth; from herein on this track, the slide guitar and intricacy of strings says everything that needs further saying.

“In the gloaming” catches an impression of a quotidian evening, “like an aching river”; the poetry of the demotic; the smell of copper, a crow’s feather, the beauty of the everyday we’d do well not to overlook. “Drowning in a sky of cotton” is a miniature odyssey of the folk culture, be that musically, psychogeographically, culturally; as with “Each year” the cycle of the annual; the county fair, the sale of the cow, the bathing of it beforehand. What seems to be partly elegised on this side is the loss also of a very beautiful and simple rhythm of being.

“In the floodplain” takes us to the river to pray as the process of living. It’s a rural idyll and not for the first time we hear mention of the titular cedar. We end with focus on “The pasture”, which is the first track in this part which has drums, albeit light and skipping as a Sam Prekop album; warmed once more with the sunshine of slide, we hear how the pasture “is modelled by the shadow of the clouds passing … the cedars … alert, like a children’s choir practice.”

It’s quite a record – two records really; the first more orange and the other hues of the sun’s framing of the beginning and the ending of the day, alive with a heartfelt yearning and cosmic sonic thrill. The second is far more verdant, deep green, homespun, and focuses in very much in on the wonder of the simple; the moments we all return to, perhaps, at least us rural dwellers.

If you’re at all conceptually familiar with the work of William Blake, his Songs Of Innocence And Experience, you’ll see a parallel here; the twining and correspondences of differences is what leads to the progression. And I think that’s what we have here, courtesy Stuart Hyatt’s always enthralling Field Works: one side hot with sun and sustain and a gently fusion mysticism; the other demotic, plain, no less wondering.

Come climb into Cedars, join the two worlds for yourself; the album is long on thought and also on beauty.

Field Works’ Cedars will be released by Temporary Residence digitally, on CD and on vinyl on March 5th; it’s available for pre-order over at Bandcamp and at the label now.

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