“All at sea. Anchorless. Adrift.”
Many will know Craig Fortnam as the composer behind the North Sea Radio Orchestra, and here he presents the first album under his own name, a very personal recording that takes the sea and the eastern fringes of the UK as symbols of “uncertainty, tumult, pain and change”, its coastline “unstoppably eroded by and into the unknowable vastness of the ocean”.
It’s an achingly beautiful record.
Craig has gathered various friends to add their eclectic talents on a range of mostly acoustic instruments, taking in clarinets and bassoon, cello and violin, piano and vibraphone. Fortnam himself is at the core with his skilled guitar technique, a variety of keyboards and a voice with a fragility that fits the songs perfectly.
The ten tracks cover a number of bases from bite-size vignettes to larger scale pieces that give Fortnam’s compositions the space they need to evolve. It’s at times melancholy but generally an uplifting – even jaunty – experience. The opening title track sets things out beautifully, starting in low-key fashion with Craig’s voice and guitar. Overdubbed asides contribute until the addition of strings and keys in the chorus. Woodwinds build the organic beating heart of Ark, and the classically influenced segment is a cleansing masterstroke, allowing the piece to breath and rebuild, spiralling upward, light as a feather, but with added heft in the gorgeous multi-layered soundscape that carries us forward. It’s a lovely and fulfilling start, culminating in the bassoon, jangly guitar and writhing violin coda of The Gargoyle’s Seaweed Hair, which give proceedings that knowing Cardiacs wink.
Ravensodd and German Ocean are both brief, acting as a pair with the luscious guitar duet of the former, drawing in folk elements, strings and woodwind to take it to wide open spaces filled with sea air and spray, where coastal communities thrived before erosion took its toll. It’s delicate and precise, in many ways akin to North Sea Radio Orchestra. The sprightly German Ocean has a percussive brightness, the deep parping of bassoon supporting multi-tracked vocals. Violin call and response echoes the flight and calls of the ravens that feature (“The brightest of the birds”) and it’s all beautifully arranged.
Other vignettes include the warmth of Crack Haven, guitar, piano and violin laying out the peace of this place of shelter as you sense the winds rising just out of reach. The folky Heaven Knows features short verses and a particularly upbeat singalong chorus. Craig’s guitar dexterity comes into play, the arrangement more simple but equally effective with jaunty and dextrous picking to close.
The two longer pieces are fascinating. A Speck I Am sees chiming guitar and organ set the scene before driving waves of synth, accompanied by birdsong, lead us to an undulating lead line, around which violin swoops. The verses have an infectious feel, the arrangement of the supporting instrumentation again superb, allowing space for exhilarating flights of fancy. A marked change of rhythm appears in the second half, the synthetic bassline underpinning an enigmatic lead that drifts off the road into the bushes for a superb round of Cardiacs/William Drake-influenced madness, performed with pinpoint accuracy. It’s quite a ride.
My favourite track is the delicious flow of Managed Decline on the Orford Ness, the echoed keyboard melange, again with seabirds close to the synthetic surface, is beautifully atmospheric, emerging into a jangled percussive rhythm and minimalist repetition. The melody emerges, and it’s more than worth the wait, insistent guitars, clarinets and keyboards swirling around each other. When the bass swoops low, the tone is just divine – I look forward to it every time. As with all of Craig’s work, the arrangement is faultless, giving clarity to the myriad instrumental voices, all coming together in an absorbing dance. It weaves through a series of gorgeous vignettes, an organic symphony in microcosm. Managed Decline acts as a kind of introduction to Strophic‘s cycling guitar parts which, combined with keyboards give it a watery effect, Craig singing the heart-rending lines over a simple melody. Lugubrious clarinet adds depth, bassoon again making its unique presence felt. A high-pitched keyboard line works in contrast as a lovely additional texture, rolling down through piano and clarinet lines to a coda of delicate chiming percussion and synths.
Finally, we move to a different area in which Craig is a master. Now Floods the Tempest High could easily be a genuine Tudor guitar and violin piece. If someone told you it was authentically of its time, you’d believe them. It has gravitas and a fine melody, ending a quite wonderful album on a superb high, perhaps fittingly closing on a solitary guitar line.
…and that’s my cue to hit the ‘Play’ button again.
Craig knows how to pen a noteworthy melody and motif, but the true joy of this album is in the arranging, the palette of instruments hung on it so beautifully, giving each the opportunity to shine brightly and add its own voice to a compelling and dynamic whole.
It’s a wonderfully succinct album, packed with variety and that organic feel that only comes from traditional instruments, but with the addition of a quirky synthetic edge. The playing is wonderful and it more than bears repeated listens – and it’s a delight each time.
01. Ark (4:26)
02. The Gargoyle’s Seaweed Hair (0:57)
03. Ravensodd (2:23)
04. German Ocean (2:25)
05. Managed Decline on the Orford Ness (6:46)
06. Crack Haven (1:17)
07. Strophic (4:28)
08. A Speck I Am (8:46)
09. Heaven Knows (2:29)
10. Now Floods the Tempest High (1:57)
Total Time – 35:54
Craig Fortnam – Voice, Guitars, Organ, Synth, Piano, Percussion
Nicky Baigent – Bb & Bass Clarinets
Luke Crooks – Bassoon
Harry Escott – Cello
James Larcombe – Piano
Brian Wright – Violin, Viola
Hugh Wilkinson – Vibraphone
Record Label: Onomatopoeia Records
Country of Origin: U.K.
Date of Release: 16th July 2021