There are some record labels, and Seattle’s Sub Pop comes immediately to mind, where you know that whatever they release is going to be at the very least interesting. Others have the sort of design style where you only have to look at the artwork to know what label is behind it, such as Germany’s ECM.
One such label that has fascinated me over the last 15 years or so is Montreal’s Constellation Records, which covers both bases. You know that anything that comes out is going to be worth a listen, and you can immediately recognise it from the cover. Constellation was founded in 1997 as something of a reaction to the corporate reach of the big labels and very definitely independent in many meanings of the word. Their CDs and LPs are designed by local artists and put together in a manner that makes you want to own them and, like Factory Records under Tony Wilson, will sacrifice profit for something that looks right and, in Constellation’s case, is environmentally friendly. As a bit of an audio geek I also appreciate that they do not charge any more for high quality downloads than they do for mp3s; making their output particularly accessible for me.
Like many, I suspect, I first came across Constellation through the Godspeed You Black Emperor! album F#A#∞. With its opening monologue amidst helicopter sounds, followed by soaring and droning strings and guitars I remember listening to the first track, Dead Flag Blues, again and again. It established the Constellation house style for me, a style that I continue to find both sublime and unsettling. This was confirmed for me when I saw them live at the Cockpit in Leeds in 2000, supported by Constellation label-mates Fly Pam Am and a just breaking through Sigur Rós. What a weird and amazing gig that was, one that established ‘Post Rock’ in my mind a sound I thought at the time represented the best hope for the new millennium. It was one of those gigs where you wondered whether the support act (Sigur Rós) would outshine the headliners, but Godspeed were equal to the task, even those all nine of them could not fit on the tiny stage at the same time.
Constellation have continued to put out great albums, usually by bands which ‘constellate’ together as a collection of musicians who then dissolve to form another short-lived group. Rebecca Foon is in many ways typical of this. A cellist who has previously played with Constellation bands such as Set Fire to Flames and Thee Silver Mt. Zion, and Esmerine (a ‘contemporary chamber group’ of which I was previously unaware) she has teamed up with Jamie Thompson, also from Esmerine, to create a beautiful record of rich textures, haunting and soaring vocals, and that trademark Constellation sound through her cello and the synth sounds which add to the ethereal quality of the music.
This seems like a very personal record, one that Foon has been longing to make for some time, and I have no idea where her ancestry lies, but there is a very definite Celtic feel to it. Unholy and Colour the Night Sky both give one the impression of walking through the sort of mist that one can only experience on an Autumn morning in Ireland, while ICA is a beautifully judged song which allows one to drift away with its folky charm (in a very good way). In many ways you could say that Foon’s vocal and cello are duetting, particularly evident to me on But It Was All Of Us, and this dialogue infuses the album and gives it its unique style.
This, then, is a really beautiful album which marks a recent high point in Constellation’s output, which is high praise indeed. It is an album that is far more than the some of it’s parts, bringing together elements of folk, jazz, chamber, and (post) rock. It is a record that will charm you, relax you, encompass you, and maybe even disturb you. It will take you away from where you are: enjoy the trip and godspeed for your return.