Sub-titled Part One of The Buttered Cat Conspiracy this epic double concept album is a fruition of ideas that Joff Winks and Mat Baber originally had back in the first few years of this century in their first band together, the daftly monikered Antique Seeking Nuns, and have been working on ever since in all their other collaborations.
The latest incarnation of the Winks-Baber creative partnership is Sanguine Hum, and following on from their 2012 debut Diving Bell was the following year’s The Weight Of The World, a sizeable artistic leap forward. Going back to using these old ideas, albeit with plenty of additional new music composed and arranged by all four band members to bring the project to completion is a brave move for the Oxford band. I feel that this project is something of a sideways step rather than a progression for the band, but the hint of a “Part Two” to follow, which presumably would comprise of mostly if not all newly composed music shows that lack of ambition is not one of the group’s shortcomings.
The CD booklet of Now We Have Light contains the story behind the concept, which despite its dystopian subject matter is written in a strangely compelling and innocently childlike manner, in much the same way as one of the now rare occurrences when an episode of Dr Who gets it right. We are told of a post-apocalyptic scenario, wherein the unexplained cause of said apocalypse is Don, the hapless hero and calamity-magnet of this surrealistic sci-fi drama and this very tall story relates his trials and tribulations upon discovering something strange in his attic. I particularly liked the twist at the end.
The PR sheet describes the tale as a mixture of Hitch Hikers’ Guide To The Galaxy, The Lamb Lies Down On The Broadway and Joe’s Garage, and I couldn’t put it any better myself. Musically there are certainly references to both Genesis and Zappa, but as ever with Sanguine Hum, the whole is overlaid with a Canterbury atmosphere. It is a place where modern prog meets the gentler side of the jazz inflections of Canterbury. The band recorded the album in their by now well established home-from-home that is Evolution Studios in their home town of Oxford, and the comfortably familiar surroundings imbue the music with a warmth and easy confidence.
In the promo video below Joff and Matt give glimpses into the evolution of the project, something gone into in greater depth in the DVD accompanying the deluxe version of this package (see Cherry Red link below – there is a cheaper standard 2CD edition available too). The version I am reviewing is the standard 2CD version.
Relying less on songs per sé, the double album has to fall back on the quality of the music, which for the most part manages to carry the concept quite well. There is a slight lack of really memorable moments that would place the album at the top of the league, and the project would have been better served as a single hour long disc, as the material is not quite strong enough to maintain my interest for its entire length.
The song sections highlight the narrative, and although there is nothing here in the same league as a Carpet Crawlers or a Back In NYC that could easily stand on its own merits, and frankly it would be amazing if there were, they serve their purpose well enough. Unfortunately the CD booklet does not include the lyrics, which is a shame, as Joff Winks’ voice is not the strongest and I sometimes struggle to decipher what is being sung. The stronger songs are End of the Line, a nine-minute languid affair with despair that concludes with some intricate interplay, and Drastic Attic, an alternately dreamy and nightmarish complex construct that encapsulates the band’s sound perfectly. If Lewis Carroll were alive and writing a prog song it would sound like this.
Joining Joff and Matt is long-time bass partner Brad Waissman and no-man’s Andrew Booker on drums, the same rhythm section from the last album, and a pair whose skilful subtleties complement the luscious soundscapes conjured up by Joff and Matt. This is not a band that indulges in pointless soloing, instead they sensibly opt for a densely cinematic ensemble sound in the many lengthy instrumental passages, a sonic palette that entirely suits the filmic subject matter. A case in point is the effortlessly funky interlocking instrumental Cat Factory. Joining the band on Spanning the Eternal Abyss and Bubble Trouble is vibraphone player Jim Hart, a player with a long jazz background, whose embellishments underline the Canterbury feel.
Like any concept album Now We Have Light works best if listened to whole, something that regrettably few of us have the time for these days, and as I said earlier the material lacks the hooks needed to justify a double album, but that aside there are some good musical moments contained within. Recalling one of the band’s inspirations, namely Hatfield And The North, Now We Have Light is shot through with a rather English mischievous but understated musical spirit, meaning that it never becomes po-faced or transfixed by its own navel. As much as the grand sweep of the intentionally and increasingly daft concept renders describing individual tracks as not that helpful, with one look at the track list below you will no doubt have noticed the prog box-ticking aforementioned 9-minute End of the Line followed by the 17-minute six part mini-epic Spanning The Eternal Abyss on the second album. The latter, much like the whole album is not something that makes an instant impact, but give it a few plays and it will reveal itself akin to a slowly opening flower in the morning sun. Oddly, the sixth part is tagged as separate track on the CD although it follows seamlessly from part five, and is listed both as “(vi)” and track 6, and is part of the whole. Confusing! Jim Hart’s vibraphone comes to the fore in this time signature-shifting meeting of Hatfield and Genesis. The concluding and redemptive Settle Down is a decent song in itself, and achieves its aim of leaving the listener wanting more.
Released at around the same time as a certain album by a shoeless troubadour, Now We Have Light was somewhat engulfed in the endless tsunami of words written about said recording, a fate it certainly didn’t warrant, as Sanguine Hum have produced a suite of music that in my mind is deserving of your attention, despite my reservations. The band could learn a thing or two from Mr Wilson when it comes to writing memorable songs within a concept, and you may well have guessed that my one caveat with Now We Have Light is that, as can often be the case with a sprawling concept like this, the art of the song has occasionally been sacrificed on the altar of the overriding theme, but hey, even Lamb… has its filler moments!
01. Desolation Song (6:27)
02. Drastic Attic (3:34)
03. Getting Warmer (3:01)
04. Out Of Mind (5:51)
05. Theft (4:51)
06. “Shit!” (2:12)
07. Chat Show (6:55)
08. Derision (6:28)
Total Time – 39:26
01. Just a Prelude (1:57)
02. Cat Factory (2:56)
03. On The Beach (6:07)
04. End Of The Line (9:21)
05. Spanning The Eternal Abyss (10:44)
(i) A Temporal Bursting
(ii) The Gusty Forest
(iv) On Another Beach
(v) Double Bubble Trouble
06. Bubble Trouble (6:19)
07. Settle Down (5:37)
Total Time – 43:05
Joff Winks – Vocals, Electric and Acoustic Guitars, Guitar Synth & Loops
Matt Baber – Rhodes, Synths, Hammond Organ & Loops
Brad Waissman – Bass Guitar & Double Bass
Andrew Booker – Drums
Jim Hart – Vibraphone on CD2, tracks 5 & 6
Record Label: Esoteric Antenna
Year Of Release: 2015