MODERN NATURE might be flying under your radar, but the Bella Union band who’ve just one full-length and one-mini album to their name – 2019’s How To Live and last year’s Annual, respectively – are someone you should be wrapping your head around, especially if the post-rock pastoral brilliance espoused by Mark Hollis and Talk Talk is your poison.
They have a very British pastoral weave, do Modern Nature – almost deserving of a small B, so as to be clear, there are no populist-nationalist connotations herein; more a real sense of place, of the land; and in that they’re together with a loose band of fellow travellers including Grasscut, Rob St John, These New Puritans and others.
They delivered a lovely set at this summer’s End of the Road, if slightly spiked by what proved to be an absolutely scorching late afternoon, too hot to move, lizard-blissed as they rang out from the main stage; ideally, you’d find them over at the Garden stage nearer dusk; but then, that is about the best marriage of stage and time of day in the land.
Now the band’s Jim Wallis has spread his wings away from his main gig to loft out over the ocean wave, for a haunting, beautiful, seven-track suite of songs entitled Pool, in collaboration with painter, guitarist and field recorder Nick Goss, who spent a six-week residency out aboard the Maltese tanker the Cielo Di Geata as she plied her way across the Adriatic. Jim and Nick have worked together before in the underrated, atmospheric My Sad Captains, who themselves released their final two albums on Bella Union; this is their first collaboration in seven years.
The core of Nick’s seagoing residency was to prepare work for an exhibition in Berlin, but while aboard he couldn’t help but both immerse in and record the unfamiliar, hypnotic ambient sounds of a ship under sail; all the humming and whirring and susurration of its mechanical life; and, he says,“the tapestry of sounds from the bridge at night, the differing dialects spoken by the Italian, Indian and English crew, the bleeps and whistles of the navigation machinery and the ever-present sound of the ocean.” Back on terra firma, he approached his erstwhile musical sparring partner in order to create some evocative and complementary soundscapes. Thus was born Pool.
“We stopped playing together in 2014,” says Nick, “but in the intervening years had often discussed the idea of making something like this together to accompany one of Nick’s shows, without ever quite finding the right moment.
“Nick’s residency and the opportunity to use these field recordings as a starting point, coupled with lockdown meaning we both unexpectedly had time on our hands, gave us the impetus we needed.”
The pair began with guitar loops that Nick recorded over lockdown; Jim brought some sketches for piano and strings to the table, and they began to shape and hammer out this raw material into a really very fine seven-track album that sits firmly in the classic ambient tradition.
“I’ve worked with lots of musicians over the years, but never met anyone who plays the guitar quite like Nick,” Jim says. “He plays like he paints, with a unique sense of texture and atmosphere.
“Those deep, undulating sounds he plays on ‘Seventh Man’ or the soaring waves of sound on ‘Beach Night’ are so reminiscent of the sea, it felt like a perfect fit for the field recordings he made on the tanker. It was a real pleasure writing parts to provide a melodic backdrop for such unusual sounds.”
For his part, Nick loved the sudden immersion into a soundworld so far removed from his everyday experience. “There was something overwhelming and wonderful about giving yourself up to not knowing, sitting on the bridge trying to keep out of the way, surrounded by the inky black space of the sky and water, punctuated by a flickering beacon in the distance – your aural senses really took over,” he observes.
Seven tracks then, if you’re to look at this work in the traditional sense, and all named very much for the maritime: “Gangway”, “On Deck”, “Baker’s Dolphin”, &c; but to divide them so in any critique would be to deny the very essence of the work, with day fusing into night, ever moving forward, ever morphing, never settling. At any point another subtle series of instrumental changes are beginning to make themselves known.
That said, the hypnagogic, disembodied crew chatter of the opening “Gangway”, replete with little else but some deft, autumnal piano interjection, is a perfect scene-setter, strong in its atmospherics, and recalls Rachel’s “Moscow Is In The Telephone”; and “Seventh Man” so successfully plunders the landscape of Stars of the Lid’s masterwork, The Tired Sounds Of …, all elegiac strings in mournful parade, bottomed out by an ocean bed of drone.
“Beach Night” is arc-lit, small-hours bleary, melodically centred on a beautiful, resonant piano part-riff out of the Satie manual, those shipboard recordings adding a brilliant depth to drift to, sink fathom-deep and the brief “Express” pulses through like some repurposed radar. cycling, scoping, your consciousness a green blip deep in its screen. The closer, “Coral” seems the most explicitly electronica-grounded and occupies a space seemingly somewhere between Chihei Hatekeyama and Loscil, which are, of course, great and bounteous fishing grounds.
As an album, does it break new ambient ground? No. As well as the aforementioned artists, you’ll hear a little traces of Windy & Carl (but of course); Eno; Bing & Ruth. You might even, given the meshing of electronics and strings consider it a post-Erland work. Yet: does it work well, does it bring good things to your world and your ears and your brain? Oh god yes, excellently. It’s not the longest of such albums you’ll ever love, but we’re talking depth here; and it’s got depth in spades. It’s the sort of album to drift to with a lover late into the night, or in solo contemplation. Yeah, you ought to invest.
Jim Wallis and Nick Goss’s Pool will be released by Tip Top Recordings on December 3rd, digitally and on limited edition blue vinyl in a gatefold sleeve featuring art from Nick’s Berlin exhibition; you can order your copy now, direct from the label.