Take a swathe of eccentricity of the Very English kind, a keening sense of melody, mix in a wide spread of acoustic instrumentation with wielders who know how to get the best out of them, add pinches of folk, Cardiacs, sea shanty and Victorian melodrama and what do you get? Well one of the things you might end up with if you are particularly fortunate is Revere Reach, Mr. William D. Drake’s latest smorgasboard of particular delights.
Bill Drake will be a familiar figure to anyone with more than a passing acquaintance with Cardiacs and their snotty nosed mix of prog and punk with a good dose of the bizarre, reviled or lauded depended on your perspective. Since leaving that band in 1992 he has worked with a number of likeminded souls, starting his solo career in 2002 and releasing his self-titled debut the following year. He also lends his considerable talents to the likes of North Sea Radio Orchestra and other groups within the Cardiacs universe that sits oddly aside from the spheres of prog and art rock.
Threads of psychedelia can be heard in his music with traces of Syd Barrett and Peter Hammill, melded with his liking for acoustic music from many eras and styles; solo piano pieces, madrigals, gothic textures and the aforementioned sea shanties. Drake’s albums are exquisitely realised and follow their own path as he casts convoluted melodies (with a far more ethereal and pastoral air than Cardiacs) to ensnare and beguile the unsuspecting, the work of an artist with the skill and nouse to build shimmering castles of musical delight that obliquely reference both the familiar and obscure.
In 2007 Drake released the Briny Hooves and Yew’s Paw albums simultaneously to show two very different sides of his work, the former a lushly-arranged and orchestrated song-based recording, the latter a collection of unaccompanied piano works that showed the depth of his skill in that area. The wonderful The Rising of the Lights followed in 2011, warm, rich and peculiar with clarinet, harmonium and hurdy-gurdy mixed with traditional rock instruments. Supported by an ensemble including the members of Stars In Battledress and others, Revere Reach expands this facet and is, if anything, more wilfully acoustic with a stripped back sound, the harsh edges of Cardiacs and Hammill filed down and replaced with the kind of tasteful eccentricity which in lesser hands could be a dead-end. Drake, however, successfully fills his songs with passion and enthusiasm.
The stomping intro to Distant Buzzing is a bizarre listen at first hearing, the quick-fire words don’t seem to fit and the rhythm is disjointed but the enthusiasm with which it is delivered wins through and over subsequent listens it has become a favourite. Although immediately different, Cardiacs loom large on this one, the peculiar jumps and juxtapositions would no doubt please Tim Smith. There doesn’t seem to be enough room for all those words but listen again and it makes perfect sense! Upbeat, quirky and weird.
The opener, like on The Rising of the Lights, is one of the rockiest things here but the acoustic instruments still hold sway, as can be seen in the video above. A complete change for In Converse, a lyrical piano and clarinet piece, warm and gorgeous with a lovely vocal from Andrea Parker. The Rising of the Lights featured a lyric taken from James Joyce and this time we get several from other literary sources, In Converse being a case in point, the words of poet J. M. Synge describing his travels in Ireland in the 1890s. The setting for the poem is wonderful and Drake’s twinkling piano just spellbinding. Elsewhere, The Blind Boy is a rockier affair featuring the 17th Century words of Colley Cibber telling the thoughts of the boy who cannot see the light, the forthright delivery saving it from becoming mawkish as Drake’s inner Hammill comes through. With haunting use of the musical saw, Castaway again sees Andrea Parker deliver Annie Dachinger’s words of a relationship hitting the rocks with beautiful additions from the sax of Nicola Baigent. Perhaps most interesting is the re-working of the Royal Navy anthem Heart Of Oak by David Garrick, written in the 18th Century, set into a woozy shantie that builds to a drum fuelled finale. (To compare and contrast, you can find the original Here).
Of the originals, the sprightly Lifeblood tellingly pictures the rewards to be had from bravery in music – “Hats off to melody, let’s go write a threnody, don’t hesitate to show spontaneity.” Quaint and folky but with steely purpose, it is coloured with hurdy-gurdy, accordion and splashes of cymbal. Almost all of the tracks are succinct, the speed with which ideas come and go enchanting and keeping the interest engaged. The title of Be Here Steryear may be obscure but it is just beautiful and unlike anything else I’ve ever heard. Almost a march with bell-like keys, piano adds a stately progress as the cadence of the almost chanted words draws the listener in. Enigmatic melodies emerge all the while making the piece a sedate and understated triumph.
The travails of a scarecrow as melodrama, A Husk has a sweeping melody with real drive and a faintly medieval feel delivered via more gorgeous vocals. Piano, clarinet and harmonium abound, the attention to detail key to its success. There are hints of Hammill again here and there but this is Drake through and through.
Two brief instrumentals act as introductions, the brief harmonium fragment Clack Dance leading nicely into Heart Of Oak while the twinkling piano of Liferaft, referencing some of Cardiacs more beautiful moments, preludes Castaway.
As referenced on The Catford Clown, the ensemble mix of vocalists also harks back to The Rising of the Lights as the music produces an exhillarating mix. The epic desolation of the title track, Drake’s voice and a glowering piano giving an air of Scottish folk, accentuated with the addition of accordion and great backing vocals, sees the track ebb and flow like the tide across a spit of sand, Drake’s piano guiding the way like a beacon. The ‘trad folk’ feel of the words and unearthly sounds gives it an otherworldly mysticism that works a treat. Finally, the brief Orlando acts like a theatrical vignette that allows the curtain to fall across an album of mesmerizing and beautifully realised songs, the full cast on stage for a last chorus. Lugubrious sax and rhythms meld with the bare bones of Drake’s piano, hurdy-gurdy whining away in the background.
This is an album rich with depth and detail, the gorgeous cover painting by Orlanda Broom accurately conveying the variety of Drake’s work, his trusty piano central to the cornucopia of instruments to be plucked, blown and hit. A warm feel for the past and wide open spaces fills Revere Reach and as you listen fields, rugged cliffs and lakes appear before your eyes; but not as they are, as they were. As Drake says: “I love things from the deep, dark past. Nowadays we’re bombarded by stuff on the radio all the time, so I always wondered what songs were like from the 15th century that we never hear. There must be some really fantastic songs that are completely forgotten.”
Like a series of country walks through time and space Revere Reach is a joy to the senses, an album of plaintive melodies and organic sounds that will continue to delight and surprise. Drake is not only one hell of a pianist who knows what makes a great song but he also has the balls to stick to his own way of doing things. The results are quite spectacular.
An alternative world of pastoral delights.
01. Distant Buzzing (3:26)
02. In Converse (4:18)
03. Lifeblood (2:58)
04. Be Here Steryear (4:48)
05. A Husk (5:41)
06. The Blind Boy (2:49)
07. Clack Dance (0:44)
08. Heart Of Oak (4:37)
09. The Catford Clown (2:49)
10. Liferaft (1:03)
11. Castaway (4:09)
12. Revere Reach (5:50)
13. Orlando (2:17)
William D. Drake – Vocals, Keyboards
Andrea Parker – Vocals
James Larcombe – Keyboards, Vocals
Richard Larcombe – Guitars, Vocals
Nicola Baigent – Saxophones, Flute, Clarinet
Jon Bastable – Bass
Stephen Gilchrist – Drums
Record Label: Onomatopoeia Records
Year of Release: 2015
William D. Drake (2003)
Briny Hooves (2007)
Yew’s Paw (2007)
The Rising of the Lights (2011)