Beatrix Players - Living & Alive

Beatrix Players – Living & Alive

Living & Alive is the stunning new album from the Beatrix Players and sees Amy Birks return to her original musical project after a 5-year hiatus. With a brand new eight-piece line-up replacing the trio line-up which released Magnified back in 2017, the album retains the ethereal, pastoral, chamber prog/folk of that debut, and the intimacy and poetic warmth of Amy’s two solo releases, All That I Am & All That I Was and In Our Souls from 2020 and 2022 respectively. However, the latest album seems to have even more to offer, with a broader range of styles and a richer musical palette from the talented musicians, complementing Amy’s beautiful and evocative singing so well.

Amy is joined by her original Beatrix Players co-writers, Tom Manning (guitar) and Helena Dove (guest backing vocals on her song Overflow), along with renowned flautist John Hackett, guitarist Oliver Day (That Joe Payne, Yes Please), drummer Andrew Brooker (Tim Bowness), Mathew Lumb on piano, Kyle Welch on bass and the storied cellist Jane Fenton (LSO, LCO, RPO, Britten Ensemble, etc.). Many of these musicians have appeared on Amy’s solo releases, but somehow this feels like a real, fully integrated band rather than just supporting guest artists.

The trio incarnation of the Beatrix Players disbanded under rather acrimonious circumstances (for a host of musical and personal reasons) but given the acclaim generated by Amy’s solo output over recent years, it was a surprise to many that she decided to resurrect the band at this time. However, as the founding member, songwriter, and vocalist, the name clearly holds a special place in her artistic heart and soul, and a lot of love has certainly been invested in the band’s vision over the years.

Living & Alive is an intriguing and personal concept album exploring life and how it is lived, taking us away from the Gothic, romantic world of the Brontës, Daphne du Maurier, the Tudors and dark folklore into a more contemporary look at the world around us. “It is an honest album, that explores how life isn’t just about living, but that it’s about having the courage to really be alive and own it. Simply put; you are your best you – and will only ever be second best if you’re trying to be something other than you”, Amy explains.

“This concept even runs through the artwork and is designed around a 6-week pregnancy scan. They call it the diamond, an outer layer and a small mass, which very much looks like a diamond ring, where you can just about make out the beating heart of a new life. The flashes of light and layers of lines represent how quickly life can come and go and the strands woven into our life’s path.”

The back cover image is a recreation of a 1930s photograph which Amy took as the inspiration for a band shot. “There is an energy to this band, an intrigue that I wanted to get across, and my god, did we have fun creating it. The idea behind it being that around a card table you see all the characters – the lucky ones, the cheaters, the not so lucky ones, the timid, the hard poker-faced and the utterly clueless. And so, we set about recreating this. Truth is, we all fell into our roles so comfortably (too comfortably one might say!) and what a fun day we had.”

The musicality of the album is of the highest order, each band member contributing fully and holistically to the feel. It remains a lazy journalistic comparison to make, but Amy’s vocals still have that beautiful echo of Kate Bush and Tori Amos at their peak, but without doubt Amy’s vocal range and intonation is truly unique and is the undoubted heart of this special album.

Beatrix Players_2023

Snowflakes opens proceedings strongly, Amy’s rich and resonating vocals intertwining with elegant, pastoral and evocative instrumentation. It’s a song about how easy it is to miss the simple things in life, which can get lost in all the drama – the important things that ground us.

“There’s no such thing as an ordinary moment.
There’s never nothing going on.
There’s never a day as clear as the day that’s too late.
Too late and lacking of any conviction.”

It starts delicately with plaintive flute from John, before Jane’s cello captures the melancholic mood along with Matthew’s perfectly judged, twinkling piano notes in the background. Amy’s clear vocals have her signature changes in tone, with uplifting rises juxtaposed with deeper, breathy falls, proving once again that her singing is a true instrument in its own right. The song has a gentle sway which is accentuated by Andrew’s subtle dance-like rhythmic drumming and the intensity slowly builds as the snowflakes seem to fall on us at an increasing rate. There are delightful guitar and flute passages within the ensemble playing, with Kyle’s bass growing and more complex and ethereal vocal harmonies appearing. A folk-like echo is supplied by more flute, before graceful piano takes us through that questioning hanging note, and we ponder the chorus line:

“Snowflakes, snowflakes, too many snowflakes…”

Somebody Else’s Eyes follows the same poignant musical theme but takes a more positive lyrical view. Amy says, “It’s all about awareness. If you look hard enough and with the right mindset, you will find it. It’s not a new concept, but one that is so easily forgotten. Find a reason for being here and then you’ll fly.”

Acoustic guitar and cello take the lead initially, but again, piano, flute and some simple but vibrant basslines carry the music forward so effectively. Amy’s vocals soar higher on this track and have a more uplifting and optimistic tone – creating the light to the previous track’s shade. There is a subtle defiance in the lyrics:

“Turn it up,
At the part that held you for a moment.
To the chord that strikes at every bone and every heartbeat.
The notes you’ll hear are written just for you.
Find the tune in anything you do.”

Yet it is a single line that resonates the most and captures the spirit of essence of this beautiful song:

“ ’cause in the end all that matters is the opinion you have of yourself.”

John’s flute solo towards the end is an absolute delight, flitting here and there over the lyrical instrumentation. Both these tracks dovetail wonderfully and create over 11 minutes of thoughtful and dreamy music to lose yourself within.

By contrast, This Is Your Life hits you full-on with a vibrant burst of Kate Bush-like acapella vocals and then some exuberant instrumental interplay. Lyrically, it’s another clarion call to be the person you want to be and not be controlled, but also to take responsibility for your life. As she told me, “…because at the end of the day, it’s your fault and no one else’s if you do not live the life you intended to live. Your uncompromised mind of your youth would have known some sort of freedom at least, so never let go of that feeling. It will serve you well.”

The upbeat tempo, hypnotic rhythmic structure and dynamic musicality impresses, with all the band combining wonderfully. Cello, flute, guitars, piano, bass and percussion seem to circle each other in a controlled frenzy and there is almost a jazzy edge towards the end. The vocal harmonies cast a spell, whilst Oliver’s free-flowing guitar solo seems to capture that idea of personal freedom reflected within the lyrics.

“This is your life,
And there’s no one to blame.
No matter how hard it gets.”

It is on tracks like this that you sense that this is truly an album from a real band rather than just a solo release from Amy. It is a toe-tapping musical excursion for much of its duration, although a gentle denouement brings us slowly back to earth.

Start Again reflects on the reforming of the Beatrix Players – an important part of Amy’s life for two decades – and the mix of emotions related to all the triumphs and the struggles she has felt over this time. “It has given me so much,” she says, “like a fight with Mike Tyson at times, but what a journey, and it’s so worth going through the rounds to end up with a band full of personality and respect for each other’s talent.” However, for me, the lyrics can work equally as well as a perceptive reflection of the struggles in fighting to rekindle or maintain a relationship you care about.

It is a refreshingly energetic and catchy pop song, with commercial and AOR sensibilities and an infectious drumbeat, bubbling bass and nice stabs of guitar and piano motifs. Amy’s dreamy vocals are warm and accessible yet with a touch of mystery, with a chorus that will remain in your head for quite a while.

“And I had a dream about you,
All things that you could do for me, do for you,
If you could start again.”

There’s a lovely spot of proggy noodling midway through, with piano, guitar and flute adding an extra ‘je ne sais quoi’, as well as a folky element. Definitely a song with a lot of crossover appeal and potential beyond the prog world.

John Hackett wrote the music and collaborated with Amy on the lyrics of A Beautiful Lie. Amy says, “The song is about two people that really have gone through the mill and are trying to find the way to separate and do what their friends have not.” It is a thoughtful, sad and emotional piano-led ballad about living that ‘beautiful lie’ instead of living their own lives. I hear elements of Tori Amos and Beverley Craven here, along with the more reflective side of Kate Bush. Matthew’s piano playing is wonderfully evocative, and the backing vocal harmonies give the song an overall warmth (as they do across the whole album). However, when Jane’s cello solo and John’s supporting flute lines deliver some tellingly beautiful yet melancholic moments later, the overall effect is simply gorgeous.

The lyrics contrast the ‘what is’ and ‘what could be’ of such a stale relationship so well:

“We’re living a beautiful lie… But none of our friends dare say.
‘Take time it’s your life. What a beautiful life it could be.’”

Helena Dove wrote the music and words for Overflow, another piano-led song in that long standing Beatrix Players style, yet it has a much different character and tempo. Driven by the pitter-patter of piano, the whole song contains repeated, almost minimalist, passages from the individual musicians that eventually mesh wonderfully, together with sweeping vocal harmonies (almost Judie Tzuke at times) and urgent and anxious lead vocals from Amy. She says the song is about a very ordered person who is processing the overwhelming feeling of love which really doesn’t follow any rules. “It is a relationship that hasn’t quite happened yet. A build-up of tension. A challenge to hold back until it is impossible… until you overflow.”

“Here this said the scientist.
A rush of water, surge of power,
And the tide will break.
It’s the natural order of things.
Take the order, and let it go.”

Rising electric guitar notes and hovering flute weave between the hypnotic piano motifs before subtle drums and bass raise the intensity further, as the emotional ‘dam’ bursts, with the guitar adding another layer to the instrumentation. Soon after, the song seems to take flight as the band’s dynamic ensemble playing twists and turns – with atmospheric cello and ghostly backing vocals bringing this lovely song to a satisfying end. What impresses is the way the band seem to create a musical synergy and deep complexity from their seemingly simple individual contributions, just as a classical orchestra would.

John wrote the piano passages that begin Purgatory, with Matthew’s deft playing accompanying Amy’s emotional and deeply personal vocals. “I was shopping in my local town, and I was floored by the brutal nature of a father openly abusing his daughter. She must not have been no older than six. He was telling the tear-filled child that if she didn’t ‘shut her nasty mouth’, she would be given away or put into care. A part of me thought it could have been better, but unfortunately the knowledge I have of the city council offloading young girls into the hands of sex abuse rings in the exact same area not that long ago, I’m not sure it would have been any better. What a state the state is in. I found it very difficult not to intervene and I left the shop feeling sick to my stomach and useless.”

Amy’s vocals are suitably heart-wrenching and full of both despair and anger, her undulating phrasing up and down the scales wringing out every ounce of emotion for the listener, as the musical accompaniment deepens with everyone contributing, especially cello and steel guitar, prior to a sumptuous guitar solo from Tom Manning. Another deeply thoughtful and poignant song with the rage within the lyrics resonating throughout:

“Don’t you worry, purgatory awaits your old man.
Don’t you dare feel for him.
Pointless human.
You must hate your life.
Worthless, creature.
Yes, you better run and hide.”

Amy wrote the multi-faceted You Can’t Hit A Nail when in France, at a time when she was dealing with a pull back to a painful period of her life with family, along with another outburst on social media. A supportive cousin supplied the title whilst giving advice, and she penned the song soon after. At the same time, Amy was reflecting on her experience of visiting people there, who seemed to be more focused on renovating their properties in the Sun rather than their own lives for the better.

It begins with some lyrical guitar over what seems to be the sound of a ticking clock in the form of single piano notes. Amy’s yearning vocals are more paced and flowing with the slow, lethargic rhythmic tempo set by Andrew and Kyle, as the music gradually builds, subtlety adding to the gravitas of the song. The introduction of a flute and cello duet is a magical highlight, Tom supplying brief but exquisite electric guitar soloing later on. The idea of renewal and moving on from the past are inherent within the lyrics.

“Why can’t you let go,
And let me forget.
All the tired times
Smeared with regret.
Why can’t you just smile.
And wish me well.
But you can’t hit a nail,
Where it won’t go.”

As befitting its title, Free has an enchanting lightness of touch, sense of freedom and rich positivity. Amy’s uplifting words to Tom’s original guitar idea are refreshingly optimistic and exude a feeling of moving forward, whilst also taking her back to the sweet simplicity of their songwriting back at university. Starting delicately, with Andrew’s intricate but restrained drumming a joy to behold, the music gains traction to complement Amy’s breezy vocals and another catchy chorus.

“Free when you leave it be.
Free when there’s no control over me.”

Tom and Oliver deliver some highly enjoyable electric guitar duelling before the softness of tone returns at the end.

All good things come to an end, and Amy delivers a defiant and feisty message of independence with Me, I Am Me. “This song sums up the meaning of this album to me. When you break away from the crowd. When you don’t spend your weekends drinking pints and propping up the bar, you start to hear comments like ‘you’ve changed… you’re doing too much… slow down’. Comments like that drive me deeper into myself. Only you can be your best you, and you’ll only be second best if you’re trying to be something else. I feel like I’ve finally found my own melody and that’s a good place to finish.”

“There’s a clock ticking inside me,
And it won’t leave me alone.
And it’s joined by a friend, my conscience,
And it own’s my body and soul.
And it keeps on beating along to the sound of
Me, I Am Me.”

Oliver’s peaceful acoustic guitar sets the scene, with cello adding a pastoral chamber feeling. John’s ethereal flute is there too, but it is Amy’s expressive, plaintive and ever-changing vocals that stamps authority on the song. There are moments when it threatens to become more grandiose and bombastic, but the music is all kept controlled and melodious, with only a subtle incursion from the rhythm section, a telling electric guitar solo, fluttering flute and sombre cello heard before the song finishes beautifully. Such a warming way to end the album.

Living & Alive is a beautiful, endearing and sumptuous album, marking Amy Birks’s return to her Beatrix Players project. Her exquisite and expressive vocals are as wonderful as ever, but somehow seem reinvigorated by the ensemble interplay of the talented musicians who now make up the band. There is magic, diversity and synergy to be found across all the tracks and repeated plays reveal their intricacy and complexity beneath their apparent simplicity, opening up the songs like a blossoming flower. The lyrical content is deeply personal and cathartic to Amy, but it also has a deep, contemplative and universal meaning for us all.

The pastoral chamber prog, art rock and folk influences of the Beatrix Players and Amy’s solo work are still there, but there is so much more that is fresh and rejuvenated, demanding your time and attention. One of the albums of this year for sure and my thanks go to Amy for providing the illuminating background behind so many of these musical gems. Highly recommended for the discerning prog rock listener, but with an appeal to take it beyond such genre pigeon-holing. This is beautiful and sumptuous modern music at its very best.

01. Snowflakes (6:04)
02. Somebody Else’s Eyes (5:23)
03. This Is Your Life (5:13)
04. Start Again (4:59)
05. A Beautiful Lie (3:54)
06. Overflow (4:14)
07. Purgatory (3:43)
08. You Can’t Hit A Nail (5:30)
09. Free (4:12)
10. Me, I Am Me (5:38)

Total Time – 48:50

Amy Birks – Lead & Backing Vocals
John Hackett – Flute, Backing Vocals
Oliver Day – Acoustic, Electric & Slide Guitar, Mandolin, Backing Vocals
Tom Manning – Acoustic & Electric Guitar
Kyle Welch – Electric Bass
Jane Fenton – Cello
Andrew Brooker – Drums & Percussion
Matthew Lumb – Piano
~ With:
Helena Dove – Backing Vocals (track 6)

Record Label: Independent
Formats: CD, Digital, Vinyl
Country of Origin: U.K.
Released: 22nd September 2023

Beatrix Players – Website | Facebook | Bandcamp | Twitter