Back in 1998 I was utterly transfixed by the film The Sweet Hereafter directed by Atom Egoyan. The insular community, the tragic bus accident, the harsh landscape and the questioning of what justice is and if it really matters when you can’t (in this case) bring back a townful of children. At around the same time I was also very much into the Jim Jarmusch film Dead Man where protagonist William Blake had to shed his demure persona whilst being ushered into increasingly more difficult situations and decisions, before finally being cast adrift in a Native American funerary canoe. I mention these two films because James Johnston and Steve Gullick are both wonderful visual artists in their own right. Steve is a stellar rock photographer, and James a brilliant painter who I’ve followed now for several years. It is with this record that the two have created something utterly compelling and magical. To sum it up It’s a soundtrack begging to be paired with a film. So let’s get into it.
First Light is beautiful and melancholic with layers of violin stretched over the sound of the ocean, squealing strings and the occasional seagull. Then there’s Blue Rider which turned my eyes into a camera panning across the dusty horizon focusing on the faint image of a man on horseback, heading off into the painted desert, the sound of his voice commanding his stallion wafting occasionally on the breeze and then as quickly as I catch sight of him he vanishes. Here the tension of the guitar, violin and harmonica combined with Johnston and Gullick’s, mournful, harmonized vocals stay just long enough to make their point and then dissipate into the ether, making me question if what I’d just witnessed was simply a mirage. Gullick really shines on the track Poised to Fall which finds us hitting the trail in search of revenge and redemption. He sings “For the broken speech, for the harsh belief, for the blood that’s spilled” truer words were never spoken as we inch our way towards inevitability. Stormy Sea foreshadows the second half of the album and is an unsettling number that hints at a foreboding future. The tense and brooding Big Star Falls, is the moment we stop and stare up at the sky questioning the path we’ve taken and yet we understand that we are being lured onwards towards some unclear fate. Swing Me is the questioning of one’s motivation. You stare into the abyss with nothing reflected back, while the tendrils of violin, plucked guitar and organ curl and eddy around you amplifying the pain in your heart. We Sail conjures images of a stormy ocean with the sound of a bell buoy off in the distance, life must now lead you across the water for a reckoning. Will you have the will to face what’s waiting on the other side? The beautifully layered vocals were completely unexpected and left me with some hope as they faded away.
I am so impressed by this record and its ability, in often very short pieces, to summon the emotion that it did. Not many records these days have the ability to conjure up such vivid imagery. But I think overarchingly the album is very keyed into the often competing emotional forces that swirl within all of us and the fact that nature is continually contending with itself. It’s an important questioning of life at this juncture.
Jonathan Levitt Dec. 5 2020 Rating 4.5/5