Some albums surprise and enchant you. Still by Glen Brielle was handed to me at the splendid Abel Ganz curated Prog Before Christmas event, in Glasgow last November, by Hugh Carter with a polite request to review his first solo album. Hugh is an engaging and charming gentleman so it felt impossible to decline his offer… besides I was intrigued by the gorgeous cover and curious as to what this former Abel Ganz member sounded like on his own. Hugh explained that he chose the pseudonym ‘Glen Brielle’ as he wanted an anonymous name to describe him and his music. He says it ‘could be a place, a landscape or a person’ but that it has a very personal meaning to him. Hugh hinted it could also suggest one of his favourite artists, but sometimes it’s better to leave things open to interpretation. The gorgeous imagery of the cover certainly suggests a place of resplendent natural beauty, conjuring thoughts of reflection and calm. I was also aware of a challenging personal journey that Hugh has been undergoing in recent years, but I was not sure of what to expect.
What I found was a beguiling and soothingly peaceful album which was simultaneously intensely personal and yet so engaging in its heart-felt and bucolic feel. Beautiful birdsong threads through the album, giving the feel of a lovely walk through the countryside, beginning with the warmly inviting Dawn, featuring Alan Heartson of Abel Ganz who provided the orchestral arrangements. As a listener you are drawn into this enchanting musical landscape. Hugh has explained that the opening strings morph into the first eighteen or so bars of On Hearing the First Cuckoo in Spring by Fredrick Delius. Hugh’s grandfather, A. Claude Keeton, was an eminent music teacher, and one of his pupils was Eric Fenby, who transcribed most of Delius’s later work as the composer went blind late in life. Hugh’s parents loved Delius’ music, and Hugh grew up hearing Delius in his home, so he wanted to include a reference to the composer as a tribute to his grandfather. It is little details like this that help make this album stand out as music that resonates with real feeling.
Still is a rich tapestry of stories, personal reflections and melodic observations of what Hugh sees around him, rooted in a sense of family and love. However, maybe the most remarkable story associated with this album is about Hugh Carter himself. Hugh has explained the following:
‘I was diagnosed with Stage IV lung cancer in 2016 (with a normal life expectancy of 6 months to 2 years best case scenario)… I went through the full chemo and radiotherapy trip (no fun at all) and having exhausted those avenues going onto a course of tablets was my next move… As luck would have it I was placed under the oncology dept of the world famous Beatson Clinic in Glasgow and they had just been instrumental in getting a new drug approved for the first time in this country. This drug was having some luck prolonging life of those suffering with my particular strain of lung cancer. I have now been on this drug for four years and it initially shrunk my secondary tumours and has kept them all at bay and stable for years now. People in the US with my condition have been living as long as 12 years and my oncologist tells me that the percentage of people with my condition reaching 5 years in 2016 was 3% but now on this drug getting to 5 years has gone up to almost 70%. I always hope for medical advances and plan to become a walking miracle and profound medical science.’
That is a remarkable story in itself and with the extra time given to him by advances in medical science and his own inner strength Hugh was able to create this album and hopes to inspire others to check on their own health, and to help others come to terms with their diagnoses.
The Thatcher and Mr. Valentine are both ‘story songs’ which Hugh evocatively brings to life with gentle folk sounds. The Thatcher has an earthy, rural atmosphere with a constant, almost hypnotic background percussive effect which does evoke images of a thatcher at work on a roof. A subtle treble recorder gives the piece an airy magic and the lyrics emphasise the pastoral setting of the song. Written as a lament for what he felt were dying trades, Hugh imagined the last thatcher on the Fens thatching the last ever thatched cottage. However, in recent years there are far more thatchers at work, so Hugh is relieved his fears have not been realised. Mr Valentine is a very different but no less beguiling story. Hugh has shared that it is based on a short story his young step-daughter Sophie wrote at school when she was 12 or 13, about an orphaned outcast girl whose only pleasure in life is spending time with Mr. Valentine, an old toymaker, making wooden puppets in his toyshop. Mr Valentine is named after a character from Neil Gaiman’s Mirrormask novel, which was Sophie’s favourite book and film at that time. An ethereal sound opens the scene with a softly plucked ukulele and Hugh Carter virtually speaking the lyric in the fashion of a storyteller. Apparently, many of the phrases used in the lyric are taken from Sophie’s original story, which explains the narrative feel of the song and its unconventional but poetic phrasing:
Mr. Valentine gathers momentum with a beautifully played bass underpinning some delightful violin from Fiona Cuthill. This song has a magical, other worldly feel, and it is a real highlight of Still.
Before we go further it is probably time to touch on an aspect of the album which gives it a very personal flavour. When he gave it to me, Hugh acknowledged that singing was not his strong point. In the sleeve notes he says ‘my voice is what it is’ and in truth it does sound fragile. Nevertheless, this gives the album a sense of honesty – Hugh is putting himself out there as he is and putting his heart on the line. His singing is poignant, expressive and very definitely uniquely personal to him… and when did not being a great singer ever hinder Bob Dylan’s career (although I hasten to add I am not comparing them!)? It is what the voice puts into the song that counts.
Family is clearly absolutely central to Hugh Carter’s life – one’s life under threat clearly concentrates the mind on focusing on what REALLY matters. Thankful is a simple, touching acoustic song written and performed with Hugh’s step-daughter, Bee (Bethany) during the COVID Lockdown. Crowsley Park Wood looks further back into family history as it remembers Keith, the father of Hugh’s wife, Maria. Crowsley Park Wood, famously the home the Baskerville family and later a BBC listening station during World War Two and the Cold War, was where Keith used to ramble and play as a child, collecting from the chestnut trees. It is also the last place Hugh ever saw Keith, and the gentle, lilting acoustic guitars along with dashes of harmonica evoke a peaceful rural idyll. The delicate sounds of Pippa Reid-Foster’s harp combine with the richly evocative tones of Fiona Cuthill’s violin to give this song a wistful and warmly affectionate feel. I never had the pleasure of meeting Keith but I kind of feel I visited his childhood in this delightful song. Jack Webb, from Hugh’s days in Abel Ganz, adds a tasteful Hammond organ to accentuate the sense of nostalgia. The connection with Abel Ganz continues with Heart Lies, an older song which originally appeared as a secret track at the end of Ventura on the last Abel Ganz album Hugh played on, 2008’s Shooting Albatross. Ruth Rowlands’ softly melancholic cello and Carter’s fragile voice give this simple song, about being in a relationship and comparing it to a previous one that was better, a suitably reflective atmosphere. In all honesty, in my view it does not really add much to the album – there’s usually a reason ‘hidden songs’ become hidden.
To add to the whimsical charm of Still, there are a couple of feline inspired instrumentals with harmonica and percussive sound effects in The Cat that Played with the Wind, cleverly evoking images of Hugh’s cat Raki, apparently a ‘chaser of leaves’ but also a ‘ruthless collector of mice and birds.’ The Cat that Walked By Herself has a title borrowed from a Rudyard Kipling story and is about another of Hugh’s cats, ‘Grand Dame Hilda’. This piece has a distinctly Indian style with Hugh using the electric sitar, flute and suitable vocal samples to give a very exotic feel.
The extended Slumber Sweetly is the most ambitious piece on Still, and is the only song performed by a full band, including Denis Smith of Abel Ganz on drums alongside Malcolm McNiven on electric guitar and Deepak Bahl on bass. Hugh’s daughters Bee and Sophie add the ‘heavenly choir’… and there’s some peacock birdsong! This is a fascinating piece which morphs in different directions with an eccentric whimsy and echoes of the child-like visions conjured up by Steve Hackett on Carry on up the Vicarage on his 1978 album Please Don’t Touch, including similar silly voices. There is an interesting history to this song which Hugh has explains:
‘I had written the song and had started recording quite some time ago. I played the song to Hew [Montgomery, Hugh’s fellow founding member of Abel Ganz in the 1980s] as a work in progress, long before I’d started putting all the Indian sounds in… Hew really liked the melody and the words and thought it would work well as a final track on the Clocks that Tick (But Never Talk) (2019 Grand Tour album)’.
They sound like very different songs now as Hugh has taken it into a far more exotic and almost hallucinogenic direction, based on his wife’s vivid dreams. The Eastern musical influence can be traced to Sri Lankan heritage of Maria’s mother, and the lyrics mention some of Maria’s favourite places in Sri Lanka and from her youth in Oxfordshire and Berkshire… and her fear of water. With dreams that vivid I do humbly suggest Maria refrains from eating cheese close to bedtime!! This unconventional piece could easily have appeared on an early Anthony Phillips album such as Wise After the Event, which has a similar nonsensical, dream-like atmosphere. Apart from being a piece characterised by sometimes bizarre and playful images and sounds, it is also clear that this is primarily a touching Love song to Maria:
…When you wake… there’s no place I’d rather be,
See you smile… seems like heaven to me… Slumber Sweetly…”
The instrumental Moving On also touches on the loving relationship between Hugh and Maria, based on the beautiful house in which they first lived on the shores of Loch Long on the Firth of Clyde. It was the first song Hugh wrote for the album and was originally called “Leaving Woodside,” as that was the name of the house. He originally wrote this ‘slow air as a lament at having to leave the house and drive back to my place in Ayrshire’. Fiona Cuthill and Pippa Reid-Foster convey the beauty of the location on violin and harp. Hugh has included the strange bird calls of eider ducks at the end, as they were abundant in the Loch, and he has shared that the sunset picture on the first page of the CD booklet was taken from that house. These little personal touches add resonance and authenticity to the emotions laid out on this album.
Hugh Carter appropriately ends Still with the gentle instrumental lullaby Dusk, and as it fades away you can hear tawny owls. It’s a lovely way to finish a lovely album.
Still is an album full of beguiling beauty, bucolic charm and personal resonance. I was fortunate enough to meet Hugh briefly in person; listeners can meet Hugh through experiencing this album – take that musical journey with him from Dawn to Dusk and enjoy the walk… you’ll love it!
01. Dawn (1:51)
02. The Thatcher (5:10)
03. Mr. Valentine (5:52)
04. Thankful (7:20)
05. Crowsley Park Wood (7:15)
06. Heart Lies (4:21)
07. The Cat that Played with the Wind (3:42)
08. Slumber Sweetly (12:13)
09. The Cat that Walked by Herself (4:12)
10. Moving On (3:42)
11. Dusk (3:10)
Total Time – 58:50
Hugh Carter – Vocals, Acoustic & Electric Guitars, 12-string Electric Guitar, Classical Guitar, Electric Sitar, Buzz Guitar, Balalaika, Keyboards, Treble Recorder, Strings, Delius Reeds, Ukulele, Bass Guitar, Fretless Bass, Drum Programming, Percussion, Snare Drum, Tablas, Glockenspiel, Harmonica Whistles
Alan Heartson – Delius Strings & Orchestral Arrangement (track 1)
Fiona Cuthill – Violin (tracks 3 & 5)
Bee (Bethany) – Vocals (track 3)
Jack Webb – Hammond Organ (track 5)
Pippa Reid-Foster – Harp (track 5)
Ruth Rowland – Cello (track 6)
Malcolm McNiven – Electric Guitar (track 8)
Deepak Bahl – Bass Guitar (track 8)
Denis Smith – Drums (track 8)
Bee & Sophie – ‘Heavenly Choir’ (track 8)
Featuring the following Birdsong and Effects:
– Yellowhammer (track 2)
– Skylark (track 5)
– Peacock (track 8)
– Eider Duck (track 10)
– Tawny Owl (track 11)
– Tampura from MyNoise (track 8)
– Vocal samples from Bollywood Sounds and Loop Masters (track 8)
– Vocal samples / percussion from Loop Masters (track 9)
Record Label: Independent
Country of Origin: Scotland
Date of Release: 26th November 2022