Oxford four-piece Stornoway are back with a new album called ‘Bonxie’, released on 13th April through Cooking Vinyl. It’s the first of Stornoway’s albums to take the services of a producer, their previous releases being very much DIY efforts, but not DIY in quality I hasten to add. The producer in question is none other than Gil Norton, noted for his work with the Pixies, Foo Fighters and Twin Atlantic and he has certainly helped Stornoway add texture and depth on ‘Bonxie’.
Interestingly, Storonway have used the Pledge Music site to help raise money to make ‘Bonxie’ and have exceeded their target by over 500%. You can still go and pledge money in return for some special stuff such as zorbing with the band in Berkshire, birdwatching with frontman Brian Briggs and you can ever get Stornoway round your house for a private gig!
My introduction to Stornoway came when they became the first ever unsigned band to appear on Later…with Jools Holland, back in November 2009 and I remember being very impressed with them then. Their debut – ‘Beachcomber’s Windowsill’ was released the following year on 4AD and established the band critically and commercially – selling 100,000 copies. They also made it onto the long list of the BBC’s Sound of 2010. They followed up their debut with another 4AD release, ‘Tales from Terra Firma’ in 2013.
The title of new release ‘Bonxie’ is an odd sounding one which is actually a colloquial term for the Great Skua (no, not the British Sea Power tune), a large Hebridian seabird that is top of the food chain due to it’s great size and aggresive nature. This might seem at odds with this album’s gentle and thoughtful feel but like the Bonxie, Stornoway’s new album is certainly one that takes flight with a trajectory that is focused and commanding.
Main man Briggs is also a an ornithologist with a PHD to his name – that’s Dr Brian Briggs then! – and his love of birds, and nature more generally, is present throughout ‘Bonxie’. The album tackles some fairly hefty themes which can ultimately be summed up as – look at the world around you, experience it, love it and look after it. That sense of wonder with the world that you get when you stand atop a mountain and look at the land and sea stretch below out to the horizon is perfectly captured on ‘Bonxie’. There are some beautiful, wistful and thoughtful lyrics and great tunes making this a great album on many different levels. In some ways, ‘Bonxie’ is a concept album, but not in the way that you would normally think of one.
If the concept is a sensual appreciation of the wonder of the world and the nature that inhabits it then Stornoway certainly fulfil this concept fully and brilliantly. Their passion for nature comes through more, both literally and lyrically, on ‘Bonxie’ than any other record Stornoway have made but they still retain their sense of fun with arrangements and choice of instruments. The themes and songs, were precipitated by singer Brian Briggs’ need to move away to a wilder corner of Britain. He says:
I wanted a shake up and I wanted to feel more connected to the outdoors – I wanted to feel small.
The album is encouraging the listener to commune with nature – bringing the outside in as the album opens with the contact calls of Brent geese – one of 20 different species of bird whose calls have been recorded into the album – on the excellent opener ‘Between the Saltmarsh and the Sea’. The boat horns that accompany the birds sounds grow into synth sounds before the song takes off, Briggs’ vocals as good and pure as ever. Maybe it’s because the band are named after a place in Scotland but I always think that I can hear a Scottish lilt to Briggs’ vocals.
‘Get Low’, the second single from the album, is out on Monday 13th April, the same day as the album. It is a stunning track on an album full of stunners. It’s a song ostensibly about hope and getting over adversity. The song is based on Briggs’ time as a conservationist on Chesil Beach in Dorset. It’s driving, uplifting rhythm urges the listener to “keep dreaming” and reminds them that you “Gotta play to be in the game”. There are some fabulous lyrics on ‘Bonxie’ and on ‘Get Low’ Briggs sings:
You line up all the shoes you find washed up along the shingle. They never pair together – only seem to end up single. Keep dreaming. Dream high. Some other time you’re going to get low.
‘Man on Wire’ is a nod to the exhilarating 2008 documentary film directed by James Marsh which chronicled Philippe Petite’s audacious high-wire walk between the Twin Towers of the World Trade Centre in 1974. The song recounts the event from the viewpoint of the high-wire walking Petite as he watches the world below and the moment “As I take a step from the ledge”. Beautiful stirring strings create a sound as exhilarating as the event described.
The first single from ‘Bonxie’ is the sublime ‘The Road You Didn’t Take’ (released on 16th February) with gentle guitar picking creating the sound of a running stream before layered vocals create a dream-like quality of travelling and movement. It’s a about moving forward and getting past regret and not looking back. “But sometimes all you can see when you look down the other side is the road you didn’t take”. It’s a wistful and thoughtful ode to taking opportunities that lay ahead and keeping your eyes peeled for them.
‘Lost Youth’ is a quirky number with some very odd bird sounds mixed in with what sounds like the clavichord that Stevie Wonder popularised. ’Sing With Our Senses’ is a contemplative song urging the listener to experience nature through their senses – descriptions of sea and forests and communing with nature. It’s a soaring tune and yet another standout and is perhaps the most emblematic song of the band’s ethos and the first track for the album recorded with Gil Norton.
‘We Were Giants’, a song of reminiscence, is another beauty, all acoustic and strings and yet more great lyrics which build an epic quality to the story being told: “Did we see the curve of the earth from where we stood side by side with the clouds around our ankles”. ‘When You’re Feeling Gentle’ is an upbeat song with a thumping bass line.
‘Heart of the Great Alone’ was inspired by an Edinburgh exhibition of Herbert Ponting’s photos of Captain Scott’s ill-fated expedition to the South Pole 100 years ago and the song manages to build the feel of an epic journey. ‘Josephine’ is a charming sea shanty that sounds like a 200 year old standard given a modern polish – “Do we drown here together or do we dream forever?”
The album closes with Love Song of the Beta Male’ which I assumes refers to a male that is not totally completed and is currently going through some refinements! That would make sense as the male protagonist in the song awkwardly expresses his love for the object of his affections accompanied by the sound of wedding bells and finishing with more bird calls, sounding like a secret forest hideaway.
“Each song on ‘Bonxie’ is a facet of the album which opens up like an origami bird. It is a construction of nature by humans but each song unfolds as a unique species, shape and call”.
Stornoway have created a fabulous album that is both a call to action and a set of stunning songs that are instantly engaging but continue to grow in the affections with each play, soaring majestically above the clouds, in wondrous awe at the world below.
1. Between The Saltmarsh and the Sea
2. Get Low
3. Man on Wire
4. The Road You Didn’t Take
5. Lost Youth
6. Sing With Our Senses
7. When We Were Giants
8. When You’re Feeling Gentle
9. Heart of the Great Alone
11. Love Song of the Beta Male
Friday 27 March 2015
Hall for Cornwall, Truro
Saturday 11 April 2015
Congregational Church, Laugharne
Tuesday 21 April 2015
Engine Rooms, Southampton
Wednesday 22 April 2015
Thursday 23 April 2015
Islington Assembly Hall, London
Friday 24 April 2015
Islington Assembly Hall, London
Saturday 25 April 2015
De La Warr Pavilion, Bexhill-On-Sea
Tuesday 28 April 2015
The Junction Cambridge, Cambridge
Wednesday 29 April 2015
Waterfront, Norwich, UK
Thursday 30 April 2015
Art School, Glasgow, Glasgow
Friday 01 May 2015
Riverside, Newcastle Upon Tyne
Saturday 02 May 2015
Live At Leeds 2015, Leeds
Wednesday 06 May 2015
The Globe, Cardiff
Thursday 07 May 2015
Manchester Gorilla, Manchester
Friday 08 May 2015
The Leadmill, Sheffield
Saturday 09 May 2015
Warwick Arts Centre, Coventry
Saturday 16 May 2015
Royal Albert Museum, Exeter