Neil Campbell - The Smoky God

Neil Campbell – The Smoky God

We need to travel back to 2013 to discover the origins of this latest release from Neil Campbell, and specifically the intriguing Bulbs project. The band released one album, On, which they launched as an hour long audio/visual event at Liverpool’s Capstone Theatre on 21st June 2013. Just prior to the launch I spoke to Neil, who offered an insight to both the album and the plans for the show – you can read the interview HERE.

I mention the On album, as much of the music to be found on The Smoky God originated at the time of the Bulbs collaboration.

We need to travel even further back in time however to discover the background to this latest concept album from Neil Campbell. The Smoky God or a Voyage Journey to the Inner Earth was written by Willis George Emerson and published in 1908. The storyline is presented as a journal by Olaf Jansen, a Norwegian sailor who sailed, with his father, through an entrance to the Earth’s interior via the North Pole…

“In the story, for two years Jansen and his father lived with the inhabitants of an underground network of colonies who, Emerson writes, were 12 feet tall and whose world was lit by a “smoky” central sun – the Smoky God. At the end of the story our protagonist Jansen returns, via a South Pole passage, to the surface world. Nobody believes his fanciful tale and he is institutionalised for many years in an asylum. Only on his deathbed is his personal testimony transcribed by Emerson in the book.”

The album opens appropriately with Setting Sail, featuring Neil’s captivating, understated guitar, accompanied by deep, growling synths and electronics. A sedate tempo is employed, along with a gradual rise to a fuller band sound, depicting a tranquil setting to the journey’s beginning. A wonderful restrained, cyclical piece bringing a whole host of subtle keyboard and guitar textures as the voyage commences…

In contrast Franz Josef Land and Fresh Water Streams adopt a pacier metre with the former employing Neil’s trademark articulate, undulating guitar and supported here by busy percussion. The palette is later broadened with the inclusion of mellotron and the return of the growling synth. In contrast Fresh Water Streams is somewhat of a departure with a sequenced synth producing the main thrust and accompanied by the band who deliver a solid drive. Also new and very effective is Neil’s incisive metal riffage – tastefully mixed of course 😉

The vast majority of the album is performed by Neil, however he is joined by frequent guests, Roger Gardiner (bass) and Viktor Nordberg (drums), who both notably appeared on the excellent After The Flood album released in 2018. From the original Bulbs’ line-up engineer and electronics man Marty Snape contributed to the pre-production of the release. Stephen Cole supplies electronics on the title track, and last but not least, Jon Lawton undertakes electronics and electronic percussion programming.

As mentioned, The Smoky God is concept album and requisite to such albums is the recapitulation of ideas and themes, so as Jansen and his father approach the entrance at the North Pole, then The Opening offers the perfect opportunity to reflect on the journey. With a rousing timpani roll we revisit Setting Sail, reenvisioning those opening melodies and themes, whilst incorporating and building on the musical ideas employed thus far. The Opening is rhythmically busier, and along with a darker, murkier sound it adds tension to the proceedings – a sense of trepidation as our explorers descend into the abyss. Similarly, the brief Anthem Of The Giants continues the tension, acting as the perfect link between Setting Sail and the album’s title track, The Smoky God. Deep synth sounds, then the briefest of piano motifs, introduces a ‘male’ choir, which reminds us of the inner core’s giant inhabitants.

Rising from the Anthem Of The Giants, the journey culminates with the spritely title tune. Drawing on a cornucopia of ideas, Neil provides an engaging variety of moods and textures. The middle section, in particular, is a swirling mass of intertwining synths underpinned by themed guitar lines. A wonderful celebration of the “smoky” central sun, and a stunning piece of music to boot. Now if I’ve followed Neil’s musical interpretation of Emerson’s storyline then as Jansen and father emerge from their two-year adventure at the South Pole, then Neil Campbell’s gentle and reflective Returning encapsulates the mood precisely. The guitar takes centre stage, multi-layered, ornate and truly captivating. The album closes-out with the reflective Recollection, a splendid recapitulation of the main musical ideas from across the album and presented in a refreshing reimaging.

As with most concept albums, a greater appreciation is gained by listening from start to finish, however rest assured each and every track delivers its own charm.

Another fantastic release from Neil Campbell and for those ‘still’ unfamiliar with his music then The Smoky God is an excellent place to correct this oversight.

01. Setting Sail (4:45)
02. Franz Josef Land (3:04)
03. Fresh Water Streams (2:57)
04. The Opening (3:50)
05. Anthem Of The Giants (1:51)
06. The Smoky God (5:45)
07. Returning (6:12)
08. Recollection (3:18)

Total Time – 31:42

Neil Campbell – Classical, Acoustic & Bass Guitars, Godin MultiAc Guitar, Roland VG99, Korg Monologue, Korg Kaoss Pad KP3, Boss SY1, EMS Synthi AKS, Additional Keyboards, Electronics & Programming
Marty Snape – Electronics, Pre-Production
Roger Gardiner – Additional Bass Guitar
Viktor Nordberg – Drums
Stephen Cole – Electronics (track 6)
Jon Lawton – Electronics, Electronic Percussion Programming

Record Label: Independent
Country of Origin: U.K.
Date of Release: 8th March 2024

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