Taking over 10 years to deliver your second album does not smack of any desire to rush things and In Droplet Form is certainly an album that has benefitted from the care and attention to detail brought to bear in its creation.
No doubt an unfamiliar name to many of our readers, Stars In Battledress work at the periphery of the prog world in a separate dimension alongside a number of other artists with links in personnel or mindset to Cardiacs (I feel a Venn Diagram coming on…). Over the years this little locked cupboard of delights has been the source of some of my favourite recent releases as well as the older work that inspired them. The music is a perfect fit for prog enthusiasts of many hues but in most cases the bands would struggle to be comfortable within the genre as their work often contains so much more than what might be expected. With bands such as Knifeworld currently being embraced by the wider prog world these bands are getting the attention they deserve at last.
A duo, Stars In Battledress are brothers James and Richard Larcombe who have worked together for many years. Although Stars In Battledress gigs have been few, and usually in small venues that suit their intimate sound, they have supported Cardiacs in larger halls. Their initial recording sessions were produced by Cardiacs leader Tim Smith, to whom In Droplet Form is dedicated, and the Larcombes are often to be found working with fellow Cardiacs associates William D. Drake and North Sea Radio Orchestra. The Knifeworld connection is also taken further here as In Droplet Form is released on the label of longtime friend and musical ally, Kavus Torabi.
Let’s get one thing straight; Stars In Battledress sound nothing like Knifeworld or Cardiacs but cut their own furrow in much the same way. The influences are in attitude more than phrasing and the sounds produced are uniquely individual. Stars In Battledress are a duo comprised of brothers James and Richard Larcombe, their music is complex yet highly melodic taking an acoustic approach that fuses folk with art rock and an unorthodox lyrical approach. The instrumentation mainly features acoustic guitar with piano or harmonium, the patterns and textures flowing through each other as passages evolve naturally into unexpected new directions. The decade of working towards this release has produced quite sparkling results in the arrangements.
As conveyed by Ashley Jones’ cover artwork, the self-produced In Droplet Form is an enigmatic and elusive album of variety that shows just what can be achieved from a limited instrumental palette, although the equally secretive sleeve notes give little indication of what instruments are actually played; I expect it was simply a case of what was necessary and nothing more. There are no drums or bass, the rhythmic drive on this understated music coming mainly from the piano.
It is hard to pinpoint exactly what makes it all work so well but it certainly does. There is a theatricality to the presentation but the music is often dreamy and ethereal, delicate and otherworldly. The songs are occasionally sparse but often full bodied, lush and emotionally charged; they flow beautifully and the record works fantastically well with the unexpected being a key factor in holding the attention. Nothing is more surprising than the knotty, electric and discordant TKS2 which stands at odds with the rest of the album, a sideswipe that effectively changes the tone and adds to the recording as a whole. Shrieking guitar stabs swirl around each other, multitracked at the end, in an unconventional melody line as Richard’s voice weaves delicately through to deliver brief verses that defy clear interpretation. Heady and compelling stuff.
There is a quintessentially English feel to Stars In Battledress, as can be said of the likes of Caravan and Gentle Giant for example, and they simply could not come from anywhere else. Richard Larcombe’s vocals are a mannered and exemplary Richard Sinclair-like tenor, his lyrics unusual and highly effective – poetic, intriguing and open to interpretation. Most importantly, they work very well within the music of In Droplet Form, a focal point amid the swirling instrumental variety. They have a forthright and defiant tone that doesn’t stray into whimsy or pretense and there is a naturalness to the presentation that belies any sense of contrivance.
The songs are precise but with a sense that they evolved of their own accord resulting in something that sounds like it has come from an otherworldly place. A Winning Decree is a particularly focusing opening gambit, as can be seen from the accompanying video. The folky intro moves into minimalism as guitar and piano complement each other, the elongated words of the vocal resonating and reaching out to the listener. Near the end the intensity rises in a compelling burst of energy, the playing becomes unexpectedly angry before subsiding to a beautiful instrumental ending. A great way to start that leads us willingly into the cornucopia of delights that follow.
Of the more sprightly and to the point numbers, and that is in no way meant to decry the complexity and skill deployed within them, the brief Buy One Now is a tongue in cheek and witty look at advertising and commercialism whilst Hollywood Says So is edged with cynicism when considering the vagaries of the movie business, the words chosen for maximum effect over a rolling piano line. The pieces do not fit a template and take exactly as long to complete as they take, such as the short and to the point hurdy-gurdy of No Glory No Gain, the same instrument adding the main ingredient to Hunt The Button where it is accompanied by guitar and vocals. There is a sparseness and warmth amongst the acoustic sounds that benefits the haunting vocal line and almost wilfully obscure lyrics as a drone keeps things on the edgy side. In contrast the pristine vocal and piano duet Fluent English is clear and precise, guitar added as the pace picks up to form an undulating platform for the words. The Defenders In The Mill has a similar setting but is more complex, almost choral at times with dense instrumentation. The way in which the intricacies of the songs are delivered is breathtakingly simple yet retains the interest over many repeated plays.
Unmatchable Bride is almost Dickensian in the way vivid images are conjured as the song progresses and the album closes with The Women From The Ministry, a ghostly and sinister 10-minute epic that opens with a repeated piano figure, variations and other instruments added to give a widescreen sound that evolves beautifully. The way that phrases change and merge organically into new ideas without being overused keeps the shifting landscape intact. The listener cannot just sit back and tap their feet to this, concentration is required – if not demanded – to allow the music to truly speak to you. And make no mistake, it has plenty to say. The extended instrumental coda brings the minimalism and repetition of Erik Satie and Phillip Glass to mind and underlines the quality inherent within In Droplet Form, a striking conclusion to a wonderfully conceived album.
To sum up, In Droplet Form is an album for those who do not have a fixed idea of what prog needs to be. For listeners who pride eclectic above electric it is an intriguing experience that comes very highly recommended.
01. A Winning Decree (5:54)
02. Buy One Now (2:41)
03. Hunt The Button (5:42)
04. Fluent English (3:37)
05. No Glory No Gain (1:15)
06. Hollywood Says So (4:27)
07. TKS2 (4:37)
08. The Defenders In The Mill (2:29)
09. Unmatchable Bride (4:38)
10. The Women From The Ministry (9:29)
Total Time – 44:49
Richard Larcombe – Lead vocals, guitars
James Larcombe – Keyboards, backing vocals
Record Label: Believers Roast
Year Of Release: 2014
Secrets and Signals (2003)