V Ä L V Ē are one of those bands that arrive out of left field to provide a fascinating glimpse into a self-contained universe, removed from the humdrum everyday. A uniquely charming and somehow very English creation, V Ä L V Ē arose from the delightfully wonky and febrile imagination of Chlöe Herington, ostensibly a reeds player of some repute, and a name you may be familiar with from the currently on hiatus and unlikely but brilliant conglomerate that is/was Knifeworld, and you may also know her from Chrome Hoof. Much in demand for her bassoon playing, Chlöe has a long, varied and interesting CV, and a similarly intriguing musical heritage – for more on this see my interview with her, HERE. Chlöe’s foil in V Ä L V Ē is fellow Chrome Hoofer Emma Sullivan, a veritable one-woman band, whose many instrumental contributions to Chlöe’s outré vignettes are not to be underestimated.
Part of the point of a review is to describe the music being scrutinised, usually with “sounds like” references, along with some neat genre pigeonholing. None of that is really possible, or indeed, desirable in this case, as V Ä L V Ē inhabit their own charmed universe. The already used “wonky” and “charming” are good descriptors actually, and if we’re going to veer off into Pseud’s Corner, “iconoclastic” springs to mind too, as boundaries are not so much challenged as have no place here. While a lazy way of calling this might be “avant garde”, sometimes those words can frighten off the more conventionally wired, but there really is nothing to be scared of here. Dump any preconceptions or expectations at the outset, and Chlöe’s musical universe is a very welcoming place. You may even find yourself tapping your feet in time, while dancing in your head.
Using found sounds from everything and anything to hand woven into electronica, saxes, trumpet, piano, and bass guitar, the esoteric musical toyshop entitled Tiny Pilots opens for business with the suitably named Delicate Engines, which commences with clockwork ticking and whirrings, leading into a downward scale from Elen Evans’ harp, soon to be joined by Emma’s powerful bass line. Chlöe’s fascinating lyrics, the inspirations for which are drawn from many literary sources – again, for more, see the interview – are sung in harmony with Emma and have an undercurrent of menace:
And you should stop me before I ruin your engines.
Before I ruin your delicate engines.”
This leads into the track released as a single prior to the album’s release, Gertrude’s List, which plays with word couplet non-sequiturs, conjuring an ambiguous air, Emma’s trumpet occasionally interjecting with a short melody atop the cascading piano notes. Lovely!
A “tiny pilot” is akin to a sometimes crafty guiding force we all have within us, and to quote Chlöe, “The whole premise of the album is it’s about how everyone has their own little tiny pilot inside them. and when you’re daydreaming, you’re not procrastinating. Your tiny pilot is off exploring somewhere else.” Here, the tiny pilot is off on its own escapades independent of the host, zooming about in self-created micro universes. In Man in the Moon, the familiar figure is calling out:
Will you dance for me?”
And this is answered in the following fleet-footed instrumental Red Moon Rising, which is what Philip Glass at his most playful may have sounded like, fully engaging with the Moon Goddess and dancing the fandango. Possibly?
Lights is a lyrical high point, with a gorgeous chorus, enabled by Brian Harris’s violin and viola, and the choir, enunciated by Chlöe and Emma with a spring in its step that cannot fail to bring a smile to my face whenever I hear it.
After B-612, which made me think of Henry Cow in a romper suit, where we find our tiny pilot going off on one, as you might say, on their own adventure to another planet, the album ends with a tune in high contrast to much of what has gone before. Folk singer Maggie Holland’s Perfumes of Arabia stands in stark relief and serves to wake us up to the realities Tiny Pilots has thus far served as a welcome escape route from. To the droning accompaniment of Kavus Torabi’s harmonium, and background nervous clatter, Chlöe regales us with a tale of all-encompassing modern Western guilt that cannot be washed away. Live, this is a moment that sends shivers down the spine as the harmonium slowly fades leaving Chlöe, joined on the album by the choir, to intone the last verse, that ends with the line “But all the perfumes of Arabia cannot sweeten this little hand”. Chilling.
In a musical world dominated by expensive to see mainstream acts at the top and an endless stream of nostalgic tribute bands at the other end of the scale, stealing all the oxygen, it is increasingly difficult for a band as esoteric as V Ä L V Ē to make much headway. They are most certainly deserving of your attention, and let’s hope if you’ve read this far then you, like me, are possessed of a curious imagination. Go on, give it a listen, you may surprise yourself!
[You can read roger’s interview with Chlöe Herington of V Ä L V Ē HERE.]
01. Delicate Engines (7:03)
02. Gertrude’s List (3:44)
03. The Hot House (4:39)
04. Man in the Moon (2:57)
05. Red Moon Rising (4:38)
06. The Ice House [revisted] (4:01)
07. Lights [sparkled] (4:32)
08. Atmos #4 (4:51)
09. B-612 (5:36)
10. Perfumes of Arabia (5:28)
Total Time – 47:35
Emma Sullivan – Bass Guitar, MicroKorg, Trumpet, Vocals
Chlöe Herington – Lead Vocals, Saxes, Piano, Programming
Elen Evans – Harp (tracks 1,5 & 7)
Jo Spratley – Lead Vocals (track 9)
Sam Barton – Trumpet (track 7)
Frank Byng – Tambourine (track 2)
Craig Fortnam – Nylon Guitar, Drums (tracks 2 & 4), Electric Guitar (track 9)
Alex Thomas – Drums (track 9)
Kavus Torabi – Harmonium (track 10)
Brian Wright – Violin & Viola (track 7)
Choir – Frank Byng (tracks 7 & 10), Matilda Lauberte Byng (7), Jack Cheshire (7 & 10), Craig Fortnam (7 & 10), Emily Jones (10), Kavus Torabi (7 & 10)
Record Label: Slowfoot Records
Country of Origin: U.K.
Date of Release: 17th November 2023
V Ä L V Ē have the following dates lined up, either as support or headliner:
22/11/23: Bishop’s House, Sheffield
23/11/23: The Chameleon, Nottingham
30/11/23: Servant Jazz Quarters, London [Album Launch]
10/12/23: Con Club, Lewes (with Memorials)
16/12/23: TAM, London
18/02/23: The Victoria, Swindon
These gigs and many more can be found in the TPA UK Gig Guide