Arcana’s best of 2022

by Ben Hogwood

How has 2022 been for you? It has been a difficult year for so many, and I don’t know about you, but I find music takes on an even more important part of our lives when the going gets tough. This year we have been able to rely on a consistently strong line of releases, giving us extra resolve and relief from the day-to-day.

Arcana has reviewed a lot of music this year. What we tend to do on these pages is concentrate on music and artists that we know are likely to be good – and we assemble our thoughts on them so you can then make your own investigations. Classical music is usually our starting point, but from there we travel afar to the outer reaches of electronica, dance and contemporary music.

It was another strong year for electronic music of an ambient dimension. Switched On is the area of Arcana concentrating on new music in this area, and without putting too many musical names on these albums, we really enjoyed a good deal of slower stuff. Starting with a single instrument, Vanessa Wagner’s Study of the Invisible (above) made an understated but lasting impression, particularly with Caroline Shaw’s Gustave Le Grey at its heart. Vanessa plays with poise and expression, and this wonderfully curated selection worked so well.

Meanwhile long term favourite Erland Cooper charmed with his pure, still music written to soundtrack the Superbloom installation at the Tower Of London, Music For Growing Flowers (above). Speaking of earthy sounds, Sonic Cathedral gave us twilight wonders from Pye Corner Audio and, with a little more country in the mix, Sunset Dreams from Mark Peters.

At the hottest part of summer, Arthur King’s music was extremely evocative in Changing Landscapes – as was that of Deepchord, making a return to the long player from Detroit with Functional Designs. Steve Davis, meanwhile (yes, that Steve Davis!) was busy enhancing his reputation as part of the electronic trio Utopia Strong and their excellent album International Treasure

More studied electronica gems should also be shouted from the rooftops – we are lucky to have British artists of the calibre of Bibio, Gold Panda and Plaid, each returning with excellent new albums. Meanwhile Clarice Jensen took her cello as a starting point on new album Esthesis, making music of great colour and descriptive power to counter the onset of lockdown. Also facing the elements head-on was Daniel Avery, whose new album Ultra Truth was a powerful statement indeed:

There were some very strong releases on the classical side of things, as record companies dusted themselves down and started to include orchestral recordings again on their release schedules post-pandemic. Leading the way were the Sinfonia of London under John Wilson, a throwback to the golden age of orchestral recording in their challenging schedules for Chandos. With Hollywood, British and French music all covered, one in particular stood out, with the orchestral music of John Ireland given its rightful place in the spotlight:

Speaking of French music, a charmer from the Orchestre National des Pays de la Loire and Pascal Rophé proved the ideal hot weather soundtrack as it explored orchestral versions of Debussy keyboard works. Their accounts of the Petite Suite, La boîte à joujoux and Children’s Corner were full of colour and character.

This year saw the 150th anniversary of the birth of Ralph Vaughan Williams, one of the finest British composers of the 20th century. Somm Recordings made a memorable tribute by way of the undervalued string quartets, these lovely autumnal works given vibrant performances from the Tippett Quartet.

Contemporary classical music put in some very strong appearances this year, and few more than Stuart Macrae, showing off the quality of his chamber music on an album from the Hebrides Ensemble on the excellent Delphian label. We enjoyed a number of online and in-person concerts from the English Symphony Orchestra and Kenneth Woods, which were capped by an outstanding recording of Adrian Williams’ Symphony no.1, a commendable raising of the flag for new British music

During 2022 we made a couple of visits to the outskirts of jazz, in the company of super group Flocktheir excellent self titled debut – and a triumphant and experimental return from Szun Waves.

On the dancier side of things, Heavenly Recordings excelled themselves this year with no fewer than six collections of remixes! We loved the first two instalments, which acted as a prelude to the utterly essential third and fourth volumes which brought together remixes from the much missed Andrew Weatherall.

The Haçienda celebrated 40 years since its inception with a handsome package from Cherry Red, while the best DJ mix honour goes to Cinthie – her contribution to !K7’s DJ Kicks mix series really was a thing of pure dancefloor enjoyment. So, too, was a John Morales-edited compilation devoted to the art of Teddy Pendergrass, vocalist for Harold Melvin & The Blue Notes.

Cultured music for the discerning dancefloor came our way from Au Suisse, a welcome reunion for Morgan Geist and Kelley Polar, and also from Hot Chip, who further explored their emotions with an excellent and heartfelt eighth album. Moderat, returning after a long absence, went more for the jugular with the thrilling More D4ta

With all that said and done, what would an Arcana album of the year look like? Something like this…the most listened to long player of the year in these parts, Fleeting Future – a vibrant offering from Akusmi which channelled all sorts of intriguing influences into something wonderfully original:

We will have a few more reviews to come over this week – but for now, we thank all our readers for your visits and wish you a happy, peaceful and regenerative Christmas holiday season. Oh, and a Happy New Year for 2023!

On Record – Flock: Flock (Strut Records)

flock

written by Ben Hogwood

What’s the story?

The music for Flock was recorded all on one day, 27 August 2020, at The Fish Factory in London. It was the culmination of a project overseen by multi-instrumentalist Bex Burch, band leader of Vula Viel. She assembled a group of five musicians to respond to texts she had written as scores, as a basis for improvisation – or ‘murmuration’, as she described.

Her partners in the project were Sarathy Korwar (drums and tabla), Dan ‘Danalogue’ Leavers (fender rhodes, roland juno-60, upright piano and roland SH-09 bass synth) Al MacSween (prepared piano, piano, Moog sub37) and Tamar Osborn (bass clarinet, flute, soprano saxophone and EHX deluxe memory boy). Burch assigned herself a wide variety of instruments, credited for contributions on gyil, vibraphone, bass drum, shakers, bells, gong, snake drum and electronics.

What’s the music like?

Instinctive, to put it mildly – but fascinating, atmospheric and intense. The key here is that the improvisations are focused, especially the 13 minutes and 35 seconds of It’s Complicated, and even the slightly longer, hypnotic How many are one? The musical chemistry between the players is striking, and it says a lot that with a track such as Prepare to let go, led by Korwar on foreground percussion, there is still plenty of room for each line to make itself heard. This one in particular is led equally by him on tabla and percussion but also by the insistent, jagged groove at the lower end of proceedings, with some intriguing electronics going on up top. My resonance is another track where the ensemble gel seamlessly, the melodies colourfully distributed and developed.

The keyboards are economically used, and the dynamics are carefully managed, and the percussion detailed but providing much of the backbone. Tracks like Bold dream become rituals, with energetic and almost trancey figures in the half light. There is humour in this track, too, the performers laughing at the way it peters out – nicely caught in the recording.

The icing on the cake, however, are Tamar Osborn’s contributions on woodwind. The combination of bass clarinet and keyboards is wonderfully spooky as Sounds welcome takes shape, the atmospherics like a leftfield detective series. Gradually the track blossoms into a richer, mellow mid-range, where the mournful tones of the saxophone are complemented with percussion and keys.

The bass clarinet begins It’s complicated with an Eastern flavoured soliloquy, a fascinating solo that gradually climbs in pitch and volume as the other instruments join, rising to a tumult of percussion and a rush of noise. The storm quickly abates, the intensity sinking back to a held drone and more clarinet ruminations, before a minimal exchange of ideas takes hold.

Some of the timbres the group secure are fascinating. What purpose has a mellow flute and sedentary piano complementing each other, set against more spatial electronics,

Does it all work?

Yes. The results are electric at times as the players bounce off each other, and it is fascinating listening to a one-off experience, where things go in unexpected directions at times but where the changing colours and moods are compelling.

Is it recommended?

Enthusiastically. This is an improvised gathering of white hot intensity, and the results are consistently compelling. Even if such projects prove daunting to you musically, you are encouraged to listen to Flock, for they make extremely rewarding music.

Stream

Buy