Thieves’ Kitchen have produced some wonderful albums over the last decade and more, seemingly appearing with special new music every four or five years before vanishing again as quickly as they arrived, to pore over their next creation.
2015’s Clockwork Universe was one of my albums of the year, 2019’s Genius Loci continues that trend and I urge anyone unfamiliar with this band, who crave beauty in crafted sounds, to seek them out straight away.
Genius Loci takes its title from the ‘spirit of place’, the unique and defining nature of a point in space, “the essence of what makes a place speak to the human soul”, as evidenced by the opening Eilmer, relating an early attempt at gliding by an 11th Century monk, who leapt from the tower of Malmesbury Abbey with wings attached to his arms. The old man remembers the flight of his youth, with references to Halley’s Comet, which he is purported to have seen twice in his long life, beautifully rendered amid the swirl of a delicate yet jazzy arrangement, Amy Darby’s voice at once central, its purity pivotal to a gossamer lightness of touch which ebbs and flows with more intense passages, a rock-solid focal point within the engaging fluidity of the music.
The core of the band is Amy, Phil Mercy and Thomas Johnson, the latter possibly familiar as a part of Swedish legends Änglagård, this association bringing fellow Änglagård alumni Johan Brand and Anna Holmgren aboard to create a riveting ensemble that, along with returning drummer Paul Mallyon (ex-Sanguine Hum), can easily cover all the bases. But don’t expect the Gothic edges of Änglagård with Thieves’ Kitchen, this is a very different kettle of kippers, although Brand’s magnificent bass is to the fore throughout. Phil started the band in the late ’90s, releasing a couple of albums before Amy came in for 2003’s Shibboleth, the band’s profile getting a boost from a stunning performance at the Summer’s End festival in support of 2008’s The Water Road, the first to include Johnson.
The five tracks here wrap around you, lifting you up to float off with the dreamy wonderfulness of it all. There’s grit from bass, organ and guitar where there needs to be, but it is the intricate slide rule experimentation that makes the songs work, underlining the technical wonder of the compositions, all the while a cool passion burning at its centre, exemplified by Amy’s gorgeously unaffected vocals. There are elements of jazz, but they are held in check, another ingredient that shapes the overall sound, alongside folk-edged pastoralism, Canterbury-style airiness and fullsome washes of Mellotron. All of the performances are spot-on, serving the spacious arrangements to get the very best out of the pieces, the whole thing having a unique edge that is identifiably Thieves’ Kitchen. Phil’s guitar flights are measured and perfectly in symmetry with Thomas’ keyboard textures. There’s rock here, but not the one-dimensional sort, this spins off in all directions, picking up relevant influences and additions to make the music truly sing. It’s life-affirming and a beautifully uplifting listen.
This is sophisticated stuff, guitars and keys modulate patterns of notes, triads and quads, mini riffs that mutate and evolve, holding the interest in a simple yet highly effective device. The solos are perfectly weighted and Amy’s natural vocals carry unorthodox melody lines, the poetic imagery supported sparingly by Anna’s sublime flute, which first appears during Uffington, a celebration of the perpetual significance of the White Horse within its landscape, with Johan’s growling bass weaving intricately through it all. The drums are pitched just right so as not to overbalance the delicate framework, not so overwrought that they become intrusive but not too light, where they would fail to hold the direction. It’s a neat trick that the band pull off beautifully during the many ensemble sections.
Piano and voice drive the delicate mysticism of The Poison Garden, a calm clearing in the sunlit forest of the more intense pieces. The Voice of the Lar considers the household Gods of the Romans – the ‘spirits of place’ – and what became of them if the house were abandoned. Set in a jazz-prog fusion setting, there’s plenty of space for ensemble playing and soloing in a sweeping and often breathtaking display, the voice not appearing for over 8 minutes, mixing Latin lines into the intoxicating lyric. Finally, the austere cover image of trees and a small chapel in snowy surroundings comes into play to convey the cold winter scene of Mirie It Is, a rendering of a 13th Century song, the oldest known English secular song, and sung here in the original Middle English, in a fantastic arrangement of twinkling keys and flute that sees warmth filtering in, ending perfectly as simple piano and voice.
The pieces all last as long as they last, with no sense of truncation or ‘for the sake of it’ extension, the natural feel central as the music plays out for as long as it needs to, this sense of timeless nature key to the integrity and beauty.
Thieves’ Kitchen played a few shows in 2008, but that appears to be that, logistics probably being a factor. The show I saw was stunning and I’m ever hopeful of seeing the band perform again.
I’m not in the least surprised that it takes them years to put this stuff together, there’s real craft here, and I don’t want to spoil it by having them force it, but I’m already waiting for the next album and 2024 seems a long way away…
01. Eilmer (9:33)
02. Uffington (11:35)
03. The Poison Garden (3:50)
04. The Voice of the Lar (20:06)
05. Mirie It Is (8:52)
Total Time – 53:56
Amy Darby – Vocals, Theramin
Phil Mercy – Guitars
Thomas Johnson – Keyboards
Paul Mallyon – Drums
Johan Brand – Bass
Anna Holmgren – Flute
Record Label: Independent
Country of Origin: U.K./Sweden
Date of Release: 23rd September 2019