When, in 1988, numb with the lack of creativity in my supposedly creative job, I founded my own fanzine and filled most of it myself with NME-influenced prose, I commissioned myself to write a two-page feature on aquatic metaphor in the work of Lloyd Cole, with tangential reference to Apocalypse Now and Joseph Conrad. I headlined it Upriver. This allegorical fascination with bodies of water and the tidal movement towards the ocean has remained with me. Apocalypse Now is still my favourite film, on days when it’s not The Poseidon Adventure, and a dream about falling into the water with killer whales still haunts me. To borrow a line from Captain Willard, this watery thread weaves through my subconscious “like a main circuit cable.”
You can, then, imagine my delight when I received the latest album from Rob St. John, which is about a river. A committed, roving troubadour from Lancashire who first poked his head above water mid-last-decade and found purchase at Song, By Toad, an Edinburgh-based blog-turned-record label, he released a split 7″ with fellow atmos-folkster Ian Humberstone in 2011, which is where I came in. This was closely followed by St. John’s elemental deubt LP, Weald, which was my album of the year, a passion I was able to share via 6 Music, which still employed me in those days.
Four years later, I am unable to play Rob’s new album to you (I call him Rob as I was able to get my new softly-spoken hero onto 6 Music for an interview during that last mad surge of usefulness and it felt like we had been friends for years), as I no longer have a popular music-based radio station to play with, but I am able to tell you about it.
Surface Tension is right up my tributary. More than an album, it’s an instrumental “project” that explores “landscape and pollution … through sound, writing and photography” along the River Lea, which flows southeast from the Chiltern Hills and provides London with a good amount of marsh, not to mention the Lea Valley Park. Commissioned by Thames 21’s Love the Lea campaign, it exists as a 30-mimnute continuous piece of ambient music and recorded sounds, and a 48-page book of 35mm and pinhole photographs.
It’s far more bindingly conceptual than the already thematically focused Weald, but designed to be listened to as a whole, not as individual tracks. With all that said, you can sample the single on Soundcloud here. I could tell you that the work was made using binaural microphones, underwater hydrophones, tape loops, harmonium, analogue synth, tube organ, cello, piano and guitar, but you really need to hear it to appreciate it and – yes – immerse yourself in it. (Read more about Surface Tension and how to order it on Rob’s website.)
What a treat to hear music that is almost definitively ambient, certainly in its use of field recordings, many of which were in themselves recorded in fields, especially in the run-up to a business-led general election where the Green Party seem so vital again – to me, anyway – with their commitments to protecting the natural world rather than digging it up and putting a price on it. Rob St. John is one of those artists whose deep roots in the soul of this green and often unpleasant land make the very idea of recording using electrical equipment seem anathema, but whatever works. He has to put it out there. And he deserves to be heard. (Albeit magical, organic and otherworldly, Weald is more conventional in shape and sound, if you prefer a front door into his work and although the vinyl version sold out, you can still purchase it on CD or download it here. The only thing missing from the new LP is Rob’s gorgeous voice, of course!)
Now, back to the classical music … (we quibble over terms!)