A few months ago, United Bible Studies made available in digital form their debut release, Stations of the Sun, Transits of the Moon, which first saw light of day as far back as 2003. Listened to beside the group’s latest album, The Gascoigne Observatory, released last month, makes for a fascinating and revealing contrast. In short, United Bible Studies have come a long way – so far, in fact, that their rough-hewn, folk origins are a distant memory, out of sight and most definitely out of mind.
Yet, while the language and mode of expression heard on The Gascoigne Observatory may bear little resemblance to earlier releases, the group’s strongest and most deeply-rooted characteristic – music emanating from improvisation – is more evident than ever before. And not just evident either; the fluid, coherent way in which the album’s single, 36-minute track unfolds is nothing short of breathtaking. Put simply, there’s not one single moment that doesn’t seem to make perfect sense with what went before; the sense of direction is impeccable, always straight and true, and this alone makes it a remarkable accomplishment.
But all of that would still only add up to an intellectually-rewarding experience; the brilliance of The Gascoigne Observatory – and let’s be clear: it is brilliant – is in the breadth of its sonic range, drawing on a splendid array of source sounds, melding and meshing them into a loose-weave tapestry where broad gestures sit comfortably beside more intricate, filigree passages. Strings feature strongly: soft tremolos heard in the opening minutes return half an hour later to see the album through to its static but glorious climax. Bells, too, punctuate the droning fabric at intervals, their gentle, pure pitches radiating out ripples far beyond their initial size. But there’s plenty of material that defies easy definition, sounds that shift and shuffle in the gloom, in their own way helping to construct the dark ambient atmosphere that pervades much of the piece.
Most impressive of all, though, is how prepared the group is to allow time to pass in which little happens; far from the music seeming to have come to a halt, everything hangs together, suspended, held taut. As each of these tense, tantalising minutes passes, it contributes to a palpable and ever-growing sense of excitement. Finally, in the closing minutes, kept low but distinct in the mix, voices can be heard; together, it all becomes a vast, coruscating worship, intoxicating, enrapturing, achingly beautiful. One can’t help feeling the end comes, somehow, too soon; and yet, the truth is that one wants music as rare and gorgeous as this to carry on forever.
United Bible Studies have never done anything like this before, and they have never done anything better than this either; without doubt, The Gascoigne Observatory is one of the finest releases of 2010. Released in a minuscule edition of just 50 copies, one can only hope it’ll see a larger release in due course. Music this good should be heard by as many people as possible.
(This article was originally published on Fluid Radio.)