Review: In Place
I’ve followed Colin Riley’s work for some time, first discovering it via MooV, which perhaps remains the best illustration of his faculty for genre-blending. His latest work, In Place, is a strange, stylistically complex, and frequently beautiful song cycle, set from texts both adapted and especially commissioned (from Robert Macfarlane among others). It’s sung by Melanie Pappenheim (with whom I’ve myself had the privilege of working) and her extraordinary voice couldn’t be more perfect for this project, which traverses the landscapes (and environs, and nooks) of the British Isles in sound and memory. But it’s not just sung. There’s a multimodal layering of text and human voice: between Mel’s singing, passages of spoken-word in regional dialects, a mixture of the narrational, factual, and incantational. Ancient and modern historicities are rendered into a sort of simulated contemporaneousness. Fragments of a radio forecast are swept under a personal monologue. Field recordings of sea waves wash into the soft clatter of a ride-cymbal.
The opener, Weather Worlds, is an entire topographic journey in itself. At one moment, syllables sustained over glacial chords remind me of the spaciousness of Norma Winstone’s recordings with Kenny Wheeler. A minute or two later, textural strains of Björk, which segue into nordic pointillism (with something of Emilia Martensson’s Ana about it). A knobbly thread of fretted harmonics (from in-demand bassist Ruth Goller) links elements of this song with the nostalgic mist of Half Written Love Letter that follows it.
Consciously or not, a recurrent structural tic of this album is the mid-point drop. A couple of minutes into Jaan Jalebi, a distinctly Punjabi harmonium riff is exploded from street-music intermittency into the sort of rich groove Kieran Hebden might conjour if he wrote chamber music, which then dissipates into Corea-esque wonk, in turn engulfed by a karnāṭaka sample. (Speaking as a brown Brit, this sort of pluralism can in the wrong hands so easily manifest as cultural misappropriation: kudos all round for making it work, and cogently at that.) True to mission, In Place has no loyalties in genre. Litanies for the Furness Fells treads through Euro-art sonic tendencies but unexpectedly weaves in flavours of slow-motion electronica. Subtle shades of Fitkin peek through the rhythms of Moss. Lost Engines brings to mind the flat-capped folksong of early Terence Davies films. Sakamoto-like serene oddities shimmer ambiently elsewhere. Followers of Riley’s previous work will recognise his idiosyncratic brushstrokes particularly in Beneath Above Along.
Among some (other) composers there’s a tendency to use found or environmental sound over-casually, inserting it as ‘effect’ or afterthought. But here the ecological and phonographic is venerated by its textual and musical counterparts. In the final song, Water Over Stone, fragile lines fold themselves amidst the titular field recording, as though wilfully dissolving into the water, flowing downstream with it, seeping into the minereal bedrock, and unifying with the land itself. In place indeed.