Northern Flyway – Northern Flyway

Album Review | Hudson Records | Review by Marc Higgins | Stars: 5/5

Before re-listening to Northern Flyway for this review, Karine Polwart’s Pocket of Wind Resistance and Keld by You Are Wolf were on heavy rotation on the stereo. Both are excellent albums by accomplished singers and fine musicians. What connects these three projects was the way that Northern Flyway, Keld and Karine Polwart take wonderful voices from the Folk tradition and surround them with ‘new’, electronics, found noises and samples, collaging words as much as atmospheres and sounds as for their meanings. Northern Flyway take the cold stark atmosphere of 80s left field underground hit “It’s a Fine Day” by Jane and Barton, a pinch of “Oh Superman” era Laurie Anderson at her minimalist digital best. They stir in a big scoop of Martyn Bennett’s other worldly ‘croft-tonica’ wizardry. The resulting album, while sometimes, moment by moment a difficult listen, is a majestic masterpiece. At times it’s as if the 60s BBC Radiophonics Workshop had enthusiastically embraced Folk Rock. Outward looking musically expanded lookers and seers in the 60s, The Incredible String Band, Pentangle and Traffic to name a few, made music with the instruments that surrounded them in their bedsits, flats and bucolic country cottages. Perhaps the digitally literate generation of Folk musicians simply have different (pro) tools at their fingertips. Humans have always looked to the birds. In mythology, they are carriers of souls, messengers to the gods, our familiars. In ecology, they are our measure, our meter, they mark the seasons. Northern Flyway make music and build songs that examine all of these aspects. Fragments of interviews, beat box percussive vocals and concern for the plight of our birds are very now, while atmospheric flutes and funereal drum sounds are as Psych Folk as Wicker Man. Arriving with some of the bird sounds from bird song expert Magnus Robb and The Sound Approach used extensively through the albums. Vocalists Jenny Sturgeon, Inge Thompson and Sarah Hayes weave hypnotically together on “Flyway”. Atmospherics, electronics, acoustic drums, harmonium, bird sounds and interview conjure a quiet storm that the voices soar over. The Witches incantations from The Scottish Play given wings. On “Rosefinch” fluttering vocal beats lay down a skittering rhythm with the distinctive vocals of Jenny Sturgeon and Inge Thompson strident and powerful over the top. “No Barriers No Borders” bird song and vocal wooshes surround the head, almost claustrophobically so. The singer, I think Inge Thompson, considers the flying birds enviously over a Carole King like piano melody. Occasionally the spoken vocals offer glimpses of real people Creature Comforts style humour, little light touches that raise a smile and make it all seem warts and all real. Left field soundscapes aside, “The Gannets” opens with an interview clip that questions our future without currently declining seabird populations. The music is hypnotic and has an ethereal quality. Layers of flutes and voices suggest the atmospheric music of Andrew Cronshaw’s Finnish fusion band Sans. “Curlew” is inventive percussive beat boxing, accordion and a vocal that has some of Eliza Carthy’s burr and timing about it, it is a thing of wonder. A squall of electronics that resolves into birdcall opens “Lost Lapwing”, edgy sounds and an upbeat tempo keep you on your toes, till a sense of calm like flight after the ground falls. A hypnotic song of contrasts. “The Eagle” is adapted from the poem by Lord Tennyson, but the glorious vocals and invocations of flight are all Northern Flyway. “Loch Carron Flame” places a chilling vocal over classic Berlin electronic music cut with a, spoken piece lamenting the lost flame shell colonies. This builds to strident piano like keys and a captivating vocal duet on Nomads. “Owls” uses space around bird sounds, a spoken piece that perfectly captures the excitement and mystery of those creatures. Rather incongruously the middle uses that ELO Horace Wimp vocal hook to make something that is strange left field pop. “Huginn and Muninn” marries stark folk singing, dulcimer and some evocative electronics to tell the tale of the Raven. A strange melange of medieval music and electronic music builds till the album ends in birdsong. It is not often you hear something that manages to truly sound new and fresh, but evolved rather than forced. Something as vital and alive as Folk music is constantly changing and shifting. It’s impossible to accurately predict the future without appearing foolish, but in the music of Northern Flyway you can catch glimpses of possible exciting futures where ancient meets modern and has a great time. One day when it’s mapped out, all this will make sense and sampled, layered electronics alongside acoustic instruments and captivating vocals will seem as natural as the electric guitar and electric violin playing jigs and reels. Meanwhile this is a captivating album and a great place to spend time, waiting to see what will be.