“The Depth of Field a Moment sealed in Time…
The Images Live on, but the Cameraman has Gone.”
These resonant words from Depth of Field, the gentle and elegiac final track of the second album by Kaprekar’s Constant, touchingly honour the memory of Barry, the departed cousin of a band member. Apparently, he constantly chronicled the lives of a close-knit group of friends from youth with his ever present camera. Those lines could also describe the fascinating approach of this band who delight in telling stories, shedding light on sometimes virtually forgotten events, and thereby preserving the memories in song form. These are indeed moments ‘sealed in time’ which live on like musical snapshots long after those depicted in the songs have gone. It is this synthesis of the historical with personal themes, skilfully set to engaging and evocative music which marks out Kaprekar’s Constant as a special band. When they released Fate Outsmarts Desire in 2017 it came right out of left-field from a band that no-one had heard of, and that impressive debut made an instant impact with its story filled folk-tinged progressive rock music. Therefore, there is rather more anticipation from many fans for this follow-up.
Could this album continue and develop that early promise or was it just a flash in the pan?
Well, the short answer is that Kaprekar’s Constant have certainly succeeded with this outstanding album, which takes the blueprint from their first and significantly develops the quality of their composition and performance with increasing confidence. Comparisons with Big Big Train are inevitable, but that’s not a bad thing as there’s still room in the rather niche territory of progressive rock largely inspired by history for another skilled and inspired group of artists.
The album is virtually bookended by the epic Rosherville Parts I & II. This song will probably gain most attention as it contains a concluding poem recited inimitably by Ian Anderson of Jethro Tull. Such an esteemed contribution underlines the folk-rock lineage of Kaprekar’s Constant and underlines their quality as their music clearly persuaded such ‘Prog Royalty’ to contribute to their project.
Kaprekar’s Constant songs benefit from a bit of research to enhance the understanding and enjoyment of the songs. Rosherville was a new town commenced in 1830 by entrepreneur Jeremiah Rosher (mentioned in the song). A large ‘Pleasure Garden’ (a sort of Victorian theme park) was built there in an old chalk pit and became very popular with its range of attractions, including a bear pit, ‘Enigmatic Cavern’, Italian Garden, archery lawn, theatre, firework displays and concerts. Thousands of Londoners visited by paddle steamer, but tragically in 1878 the ‘Princess Alice’ collided with another vessel near Rosherville and sank in the estuary with the loss of well over 600 lives, many of them children. Nick Jefferson of the band has shared that the photoshoot for the album cover and publicity was taken at the site of the sinking of the ‘Princess Alice’ by the River Thames.
The advent of trains in the late 19th Century, which can be heard at the beginning of part two, spelt the end of Rosherville Gardens as Londoners could easily reach the greater attractions of seaside towns and Rosherville dwindled away.
That’s the history lesson… but is the song actually any good?!
Well, it’s a pleasure to report that Kaprekar’s Constant really nailed this piece – trying to tell such a story could lead to the music and lyrics being awkwardly ‘shoehorned’ in to fit the theme and not really hanging together as a song, but not in this case. A synth and guitar intro shimmers us in atmospherically and then strong guitar, horn and organ riffs draw the curtain back and there’s a real sense that we are walking around this Victorian pleasure ground. Bill Jefferson’s soft voice welcomes us with a real earworm melody as an organ underpins the piece with the legendary David Jackson, once of Van der Graaf Generator, weaving his flutes and sax around the piece in a tapestry of music, evoking the joyous and frenetic scenes. Dorie Jackson’s lovely voice joins the throng and the celebratory music whirls in a Celtic fashion… and then recedes with a doom-laden bell. A more melancholy organ and woodwind take us more gently in a rather sadder direction as the song foreshadows the tragedy that will occur with the steamer, and the eventual demise of Rosherville.
This section showcases the skill with which Kaprekar’s Constant tell their stories in ways which touch on individual characters, accentuating the emotional impact of the events. All these themes and story strands are skilfully woven together within a cohesive whole with memorable melodies and engaging passages. It’s a captivating and truly outstanding piece.
Ghost Planes takes us to a very different era as the band focuses on the bombing of London in 1944 by the Nazi ‘Vengeance’ V-1 flying bombs, known as ‘Doodlebugs’. Typically, Kaprekar’s Constant look at this story from an unusual angle, through the recorded memories of children and an ARP warden, who were all relatives of Mike Westergaard of the band. These speech clips are wisely used sparingly but give a fascinating insight into how the innocence of children perceived the waves of Doodlebugs flying over as a big adventure, not really understanding the terror inflicted on Londoners as these weapons rained down on them. Consequently, the song reflects that sense of excitement, commencing in a curiously upbeat manner, which can seem a little incongruous. This is later balanced with more sombre music as Dorie Jackson conveys the tragedy inherent in these events. Such is the attention to detail, if you listen carefully the sound of a V-1 can sometimes be heard in the background of the song in places, Nick Jefferson has shared.
The lyrics tell the story of how the British forces tried to combat these aerial assaults with barrage balloons and fighter planes, and the band somehow convey these historical facts in poetic and harmonious ways:
“Monstrous silver jumbos, Keeping goal for London town…
A Wellsian dream awakens, A robot war is born.
Blue Skies and Tailwinds, And God helps one and all.”
The personal connection with the song is underlined by the image of “The boys astride the rooftop fixing tiles at break of day” who were Nick Jefferson’s father and uncle who used to regularly have to do this to their family home following doodlebug attacks. Such historical details are fascinating, as is the story of these attacks, but once again Kaprekar’s Constant ensure that this is a quality song. Hearing it evoked memories of my own mother telling me about seeing Doodlebugs over London, and knowing what to do if the engine cut out and it dived. Ghost Planes is a curious hybrid of the upbeat, with driving sax and great drumming from Mark Walker, and the more melancholic, reflecting that the same story can be perceived in very different ways.
Amidst these grand themes and epic pieces, Kaprekar’s Constant also show confidence with shorter and simpler songs. Holywell Street is based on a long lost street in London, notorious for pornographic literature, which was later subsumed into the expansion of The Strand in late Victorian times. This short whimsical tune rolls along, suggesting pictures of those tawdry times, and is a fairly lightweight but catchy song. In an album filled with narrative songs of high quality, The Nightwatchman stands out as a poetic highlight, focusing on environmental concerns. Nick Jefferson has shared that the song imagines “an owl sitting high in a tree passing judgement on the shocking legacy we are leaving the next generations” – “we borrowed from you and return it broken…”
It is a beautiful showcase for Dorie Jackson’s pristine, lovely voice over a beguiling backing of acoustic guitar, piano, strings and her father’s lilting soft saxophone.
White Star’s Sunrise is the centrepiece of the album, ambitiously portraying the stories of the three White Star Liners, ‘Olympic’, ‘Britannic’ and ‘Titanic’. The story of the ‘Titanic’ is all too well known, and has been covered by artists as diverse as Bob Dylan and Public Service Broadcasting, but typically, Kaprekar’s Constant decide to take a different perspective and expand it into the lesser known waters of the Titanic’s ‘sister ships’. This whole piece is a real tour de force in three distinct sections, commencing with the optimism of the passengers emigrating to America aboard the ‘Olympic’, which successfully sailed the Atlantic in a long career between 1911 and 1935;
“Up in the Staterooms, a young Irish girl,
Catches breath through Havanas and pearls.
Living her dreams as the ship puts to sea –
The Olympian’s unsinkable girl…
Chasing White Star’s sunrise
Set the clock as we pass Daunt’s Rock
We move on, we move…”
Al Nicholson’s Mandolin, alongside David Jackson’s whistles and flutes, combine effectively with keyboards, guitars and drums to evoke a maritime feel as the song soars and swells onward, like some sort of Symphony of the Sea. Corny as it may sound but listening to this track one can almost feel the salt spray and the wind at sea.
A brief speech clip introduces us to the tragedy of the ‘Titanic’. It is notable on this album that the use of sound clips is far more restrained and usually more contemporaneous than used on Fate Outsmarts Desire, demonstrating that the band appear far more confident that the imagination and quality of the music will suffice in suggesting images and painting aural pictures. The ‘Titanic’ section is rather shorter, perhaps because it is such a well-known story, and takes the rather unusual angle of imagining the ship triumphantly sailing into New York harbour, which could have been the case with even just the smallest adjustment in course or change of actions on that fateful voyage.
Rather lesser known is the story of the ‘Britannic’, portrayed in the final section. Launched in 1914 after adaptations made to try to avoid the disaster of its famous sister ship, the ‘Britannic’ was pressed into action as a hospital ship in the Mediterranean in the First World War. However, in November 1916 disaster struck as the ship exploded a mine and despite the adaptations she actually sank even quicker than the ‘Titanic’, going down in only 55 minutes. Thankfully the sinking ‘only’ caused 30 deaths, partly because at least it was equipped with ample lifeboats and she sank in much warmer waters. Bill Jefferson and Dorie Jackson dovetail the vocals in great harmony and lead different sections with aplomb, including anger that a defenceless hospital ship was targeted for attack.
“Fair game for the High Command: The brave ships sail alone, unarmed.
No mercy in the filfth of war: The Hague Convention’s rotten core…”
In a now characteristic Kaprekar way, the song of a significant event touches on the human story of a brave nurse, Violet, and then the piece reprises the earlier ‘Chasing White Star’s sunrise’ refrain in an elegiac end section which appropriately fades like a ship sailing over the horizon. It is a truly impressive composition, ambitious in its cinematic scope, successfully conveying the different stories of the ships through evocative lyrics and the use of stirring classically tinged symphonic rock. Like so much of this album, Kaprekar’s Constant have shown great musical ability to convey significant stories in often widescreen proportions, but threading throughout the whole album like a stick of rock is their knack for intertwining memorable melodies with hooks, possibly related to the obvious folk roots of some of this band. This engaging approach makes the songs always feel like accessible, human tales filled with insights and emotions. This is not ‘edgy’ or avant garde stuff – it’s just excellently composed and performed material in an unashamedly progressive rock and folk style, which powerfully conjures up images to tell almost forgotten stories. Complementing the imagery of the music is the imaginative artwork of Sean Jefferson and Mick Toole’s excellent sleeve design.
Depth of Field shows a remarkable step up in confidence and in the quality of the execution of their musical vision since their promising debut album. Kaprekar’s Constant have produced an outstanding album, redolent with history and suffused with poetic words, portrayed within perfectly framed musical canvasses. Depth of Field will definitely become one of the most loved albums of 2019 by many Prog fans…
… and we don’t need Mr Chumley-Warner to tell us that, do we?! 🙂
01. Rosherville Part I (10:34)
02. Holywell Street (4:38)
03. Ghost Planes (10:48)
04. The Nightwatchman (6:10)
05. White Star Sunrise (23:43)
06. Rosherville Part II (9:37)
07. Depth of Field (2:09)
Total Time – 67:39
Al Nicholson – Guitars, Piano, Keyboards, Mandolin
Nick Jefferson – Bass, Guitars , Keyboards, Spoken Word
Mike Westergaard – Piano, Keyboards, Guitar, Backing Vocals
David Jackson – Saxophones, Flutes, Whistles
Bill Jefferson – Vocals, Backing Vocals
Dorie Jackson – Vocals, Backing Vocals
Mark Walker – Drums and Percussion
Ian Anderson – Spoken Word (track 6)
Record Label: Talking Elephant Records
Country of Origin: U.K.
Date of Release : 20th September 2019