All the doubtlessly tiresome ‘Dad’ stories that you may have heard about how, in the glory years of vinyl, we would recklessly purchase an album based entirely upon the merits of its sleeve art are scandalously true. Band unknown, we heedlessly cast our pennies upon the record shop counter sure in the knowledge that ‘album cover good equals band good’ and how it worked! Well, nine times out of ten. When I consider the ridiculously high quality art work that adorns each release from Clay Pipe records (loving created by label founder and professional illustrator, Frances Castle) I become aware that I am already pre-disposed to like its contents. Almost brainwashed. The sublime imagery that she’s created for Vic Mars’ new album The Land And The Garden is possibly her finest ever, fusing her trademark Brian Cook influenced bucolic vibrancy with a hint of Howard Hodgkin’s glowering ‘Rain’ and a simmering undertow of dystopian ‘Day Of The Triffids’ paperback front cover (there’s no way that giant foxglove is playing by the rules!). Fortuitously the Clay Pipe musical stable is filled with the talent to match that of Castle’s own and Vic Mars is very much to be counted among that number.
Jon and Robin
Over the last ten years or so the tendency in the ambient/neo-classical neck of the musical woods to create albums relating to a particular location, place or even set of travels has evolved into a veritable psycho geographical trope. This ‘landscape-music’ replaced the previous trope of ‘soundtrack album for an imaginary film’, which also ran for approximately a decade before fading out. Subsequently, almost everyone’s been at it to the point where the entire aesthetic is starting to wear a little thin. I intend no finger pointing here as, over the years, my own poor efforts have sometimes been judged to have fallen into either of those two, frequently useful, genre camps. Nonetheless, the critical bar has been raised ever higher and higher and it’s Mars’ adept leap above that mark that affords him such a remarkably high score.
The genesis of The Land And The Garden lays in the Hertfordshire born (and splendidly monikered) Vic Mars’ decade-long sojourn in Nagoya, Japan. A brief visit home in 2013 led to a deepening of homesickness; a Proustian stirring caused by exposure to a series of vintage British Railway posters and infused with childhood memories of the country landscape of his youth. Having previously limited himself to the 2008 mini-album Kanransha and the bandcamp only release of the library music inspired Curriculum For Schools and Colleges: Vols 1&2 of 2012 the (thus far) less than prolific Mars, plan in mind, commenced the painstaking process for a fully formed work by assembling string and Mellotron sections recorded direct to cassette tape, completing the task after his return to England in early 2015.
Nagoya – Japan
Perhaps unsurprisingly it’s precisely the extensive usage of Mellotron that lends The Land And The Garden its signature feel. When most musicians ‘go bucolic’ they generally lean heavily upon real woodwind and strings to conjure up the necessary vibe and, specifically, breathe life and warmth into their compositions (the more folky elements of banjo and ukulele having now been rendered vulgar by the thrice-accursed Mumford). Here, however, as much as Mars may share with others the influences of such as Vaughn Williams, Wim Mertens and a dusting of (the oft and justly name-checked) Vernon Elliot’s children’s BBC soundtracks, the dominance of the Mellotron with its artificial tones, and pleasingly creaky hiss and hum creates a beautifully skewed style of originality, as much akin to Wendy Carlos’ Switched On Bach or Tomita‘s Snowflakes Are Dancing. It’s undoubtedly a highly emotional album (far less studied a project than Belbury Poly, for example) yet the sentiment expressed is one of a clumsy yet enormous charm, musically redolent of the dawn chorus freshness of Kraftwerk’s deliberately clunky, ersatz-natural ‘Morgenspaziergang’ and emotionally akin to the strangely bittersweet, happy-melancholic delights of Pogles Wood. As representations of landscapes, the pieces are akin to a curious child viewing the world through the wrong end of a telescope, since the Mellotronic predominance also engenders a strange flattening out effect in the soundscape (if these pieces were paintings they’d be somewhere in the region of late-period Cezanne). This quality will, I suspect, be rather a love or hate affair but, to my ears, it lends a touch of unique brilliance to the work. Landscape inspired albums are more than common in the current musical clime but, for all the reasons given, The Land And The Garden simply doesn’t sound like anything else unless you’re trippy enough to imagine a cellophane version of Virginia Ashley’s From Gardens Where We Feel Secure.
The album progresses in a series of miniatures, throughout which, percussion putters, glockenspiels trip over themselves, organs clog dance and wind tones gently wheeze to the every present summer-insect-like hum of the background tape hiss. Melodic nods to influences as wide as Holst, Moondog and even Barclay James Harvest (it’s that Mellotron, again) emerge, all unified in Mars’ sonic conception. It’s customary at this juncture to discuss stand out pieces but, in the case of this opus, it would be both witless and rather missing the point. As with the albums of the excellent Orla Wren, The Land And The Garden is very much designed to be taken as a whole and more than deserves to be awarded that degree of attention. Walk into that landscape and enjoy!
Keiron Phelan 2016
About the Author
Keiron Phelan is a musician and writer.