Fovea Hex – The Salt Garden II

It’s high time i flagged up one of the standout new releases i’ve been spending time with over the summer. Whenever Irish experimental electronic folk group Fovea Hex put out something new, it’s not just a cause to rejoice but a guarantee of something unique and indescribably wonderful. They’ve been around for 12 years now, though their attitude to releases during this time has been measured and meticulous: just one album has emerged so far, Here Is Where We Used To Sing (reviewed here, and one of my Best Albums of 2011) and a collection of EPs and singles.

The earliest of these EPs, painstakingly drip-fed over an 18-month period from late 2005 to mid-2007, formed the Neither Speak Nor Remain Silent trilogy, comprising Bloom, Huge and Allure. The tenth anniversary of this trilogy’s release in a gorgeous limited edition box set, supplemented with three bonus discs containing reworkings of the material by The Hafler Trio, was just last month. Before getting to their new music, i should say something about this trilogy, as it ranks among the most genuinely astounding, epiphanic music i’ve ever encountered. Had 5:4 existed in 2007, i would have bent the rules and made it my album of the year. In describing them as ‘experimental electronic folk’, i’m perhaps obviously struggling to articulate where exactly Fovea Hex most comfortably fit. Folk is surely the group’s most defining feature – spearheaded by the unaffected natural beauty of Clodagh Simonds’ voice – yet the complexity of the soundworlds that are woven around her voice encompass experimental electronics, field recordings and ambient music (Brian Eno, Robert Fripp and Colin Potter were among those involved in the trilogy’s creation). Where the ’60s expanded folk music into ‘electric folk‘, Fovea Hex exploded it into ‘electronic folk’, and on Bloom, Huge and Allure, this found expression in a sequence of songs and interludes that, ten years on, continue to resonate with sheer authenticity, laden with echoes of the past while its entire demeanour is ultra-modern, with infinite sonic scope. Though long sold out, the trilogy is available via Bandcamp, and while this lacks the dazzling additional Hafler Trio meditations – the last of which lasts an entire hour – it nonetheless stands as one of the most significant and radical musical landmarks of the 2000s.

Returning to the here and now, Fovea Hex have recently brought out the second of their Salt Garden EPs, and all of the familiar hallmarks are there, yet sounding fresh and invigorated. The first of its four songs, ‘You Were There’, is perhaps the most prototypical, taking place in a drone-like space (created in part by regular collaborator, cellist Kate Ellis). Yet whereas in many such environments as this Clodagh Simonds’ words would float in the space as if held aloft on strands of gossamer, here they fly, propelled along via a gentle beat that miraculously generates a sense of immense speed. Causing the vocal part to refract into multiple iterations across the space, it’s a superb example of how Fovea Hex create instantly arresting music from an apparent minimum of means. Both here and previously their songs are what we might call transitive: though at times they can seem rhetorical or soliloquous, they often articulate a clear desire to communicate something important to a second party whose presence is either implied or imagined. The emotions underlying these words are intense and powerful, all the more so due to the low-key serenity of Simonds’ vocal delivery, which consistently acts as a counterpoint not just to the words but also to the exquisite, precise filigree with which she’s surrounded. ‘Chained’ is also dronal, founded on a perfect fifth, its music gently coloured and accented with oblique semitone and tritone shifts.

‘All Those Signs’ dispels the filigree, adopting a punchy synth bass (that brings to mind Wendy Carlos’ Clockwork Orange) and delicate chords with muted elaborations from a cross between bells and a mbira. It’s disarmingly simple and deceptive too: halfway through a steady pulse initates a slow processing that is gradually enriched with more voices, culminating in a short but hefty communal anthem:

Long may we cheer and sing!
Long may our floodlights shine!
Long may the blue light shine upon us all!
In our holy space…

A word like ‘hefty’ perhaps seems out of character as far as Fovea Hex are concerned, yet the ethereality that permeates all their work is less important in ‘All Those Signs’ than the very earthy qualities is displays. It’s less magical than spiritual, evoking (and invoking) the essence of what makes and has made us human, in a soft paean filled with hope. Closing track ‘Piano Fields 1’ serves as an epilogue of ambient stillness, piano notes being dropped into a warm viscous soundbath, allowing time for reflection on the previous three songs.

As is their custom, the EP comes with an optional bonus disc containing a 20-minute reworking of the material by Serbian sound artist Abul Mogard. Titled We Dream All The Dark Away, it’s a perfect companion piece, initially presented as a kind of drifting organ prelude, focusing on a solemn chord sequence. After about five minutes, echoes of ‘All Those Signs’ manifest themselves as the chords continue. There’s a general sense of cycling, in that while the chords have a meandering freedom, they’re confined to a modest range of movement. Mogard develops a comet tail of noisy ambience around them, forming a balmy fug that becomes thicker as the song’s anthemic refrain returns. It’s a mesmerising development, exhibiting a sense of rapture that persists not only until its lengthy closing oscillations have dissolved to nothing, but after: somehow, even when there’s nothing left, it still feels as though it’s everywhere. A remarkable close to another wondrous Fovea Hex EP.

The Salt Garden II is available on CD and vinyl from Steven Wilson’s Headphone Dust store and Janet Records, both of which include the bonus disc, and on digital via Bandcamp.

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