Returned To The Earth – Stalagmite Steeple

Returned To The Earth – Stalagmite Steeple

Stalagmite Steeple is the latest album from Returned To The Earth, releasing on 14th June. It is a stunningly beautiful album featuring rich and evocative instrumentals and expressive vocals that cut through to the soul. Listening to it is like falling under a darkly beautiful enchantment that retains you in its spell long after the final note has sounded.

Returned To The Earth started life in 2014 as a studio project based in Warwickshire. The main creative force is Robin Peachey, who devises the music and lyrics, creates the artwork and provides vocals, guitar, piano, keyboards and synths. His producer and sound engineer is Paul Johnston from Rhythm Studios, where the albums are recorded. Paul also happens to be an integral part of the band, playing bass and drums and collaborating with Robin to thrash out musical ideas. In the past Robin’s brother Steve has also provided additional keyboards. The band had four albums to their name prior to this new release, the most recent being the critically acclaimed Fall Of The Watcher. This was my introduction to Returned To The Earth, and I immediately fell in love with their intense and immersive musical style which is emotional, dreamy and dripping with atmosphere.

Robin’s musical inspirations are eclectic. An idiom that started out as moody art rock has gradually become more complex and progressive. Echoes from the giants of classic symphonic prog are conspicuous by their absence, while aspects of the artists Robin loves, such as Radiohead, The Pineapple Thief, David Sylvian and most notably Steven Wilson, are subsumed into a deeply personal and heartfelt musical language that is all his own. His lyrics are poetic and evocative, dealing typically with emotive and challenging themes, and using metaphor to suggest images and ideas that leave their exact meaning open to personal interpretation.

The lyrical stimulus for this album was the tragic true story of an elderly couple separated during the Covid pandemic; one of them was dying in a care home and the other was not allowed to visit. The first three songs, which would form side one of an LP, explore the couple’s story from a more personal viewpoint while the second half broadens its scope to consider the tragedy in the context of society as a whole, while still referring back to the personal narrative.

Dark Morality, the opening track, begins gently but develops into a hard-hitting indictment of the injustice of the care system. The vocals, bleak and understated, float over plaintive interjections from eerie synths. We can imagine the lonely existence of the care home resident aimlessly walking the halls by day, and at night floating away in medication-induced dreams. Restless drums and a falling guitar figure add urgency and culminate in an impassioned guitar solo. Finally, against a grinding backdrop of obsessively pulsing chords, Robin’s harshly distorted vocals repeat the sinister message, for the right money they’ll take your life. This is a new sound for the band – heavy, discordant and resonating with a bitter anger.

If Dark Morality provided a bleak exposure of the reality of life and death for the care home patient, The Final Time paints an idealised portrait of the farewell moments they might have wished for, slipping away peacefully with their loved ones by their side. The track is ushered in by subtly dissonant chords on piano and cello, like mournfully tolling bells. Robin’s vocals are hushed and tender and the initial absence of the rhythm section creates a sense of pensive timelessness. The final chorus ramps up the emotion with the addition of a heartfelt guitar solo that flows like liquid gold before fading out leaving only an echo on deep solo strings. This is a moving example of this band’s talent for creating music of almost unbearable beauty and pathos.

There is a seamless sense of flow to the title track, Stalagmite Steeple, as this exquisite music charts the different stages of grieving, moving from unbearable pain to the first stirrings of acceptance and willingness to face the future. Robin’s delicately pensive vocals float across the night air, supported by dreamy piano, fragile synths and murmuring cello. With the entry of the rhythm section the mood becomes warmer, with layered instrumentals and rich harmonies culminating in a yearningly rhapsodic guitar solo. A chiming figure on keyboards, accompanied by mellow bass and gently ticking drum rhythms, suggests the passage of time. This forms the backdrop to an ethereally beautiful violin solo and the return of Robin’s vocals, still tender and poignant but offering a distant glimpse of the possibility that though it’s difficult some days I’ll make it to the other side. In the final magical moments of this track the music speaks directly to the heart, tempering the unbearable pain of loss with a deep sense of comfort and consolation.

In Meaningless To Worth the focus shifts to society as a whole and its tendency to celebrate the superficial while losing sight of what really matters. After an eerie introduction overlaid with electronic interference, Robin’s vocals seem full of self-doubt, emerging from wispy synths, ghostly with reverb. The chorus weaves a mesmerising spell, with hypnotic guitars, echoing keyboards and velvety smooth  vocal harmonies. The remainder of the track is a powerful instrumental based on a repeated chord sequence, starting tenderly with gently pulsing guitars and ethereal synths. But as Paul’s drums pound an insistent rhythm the harmonies become increasingly dissonant and distorted, and the relentless repetition builds into an uncomfortable sense of claustrophobia before fading away.

Die For Me addresses the injustice of a world where the decisions of political leaders can determine who lives and who dies. A mood of foreboding is established by hollow electronica, tolling keyboards and mournful cello, joined by the uneasy pulsing of a low synth tone. In the chorus Robin’s mellow vocals, enriched by sumptuous vocal harmonies and lush counterpoint from solo strings, grow in emotional impact as he pleads Don’t you try to push those lies I see. Don’t you die for me. Paul’s expressive bass and subtly insistent percussion drive the music forwards like a sleepwalker in a trance until an abrupt change of key breaks the spell and heralds a new urgency and harshness of tone. As the multi-layered instrumentals fade away, the focus shifts back to the elderly couple, poignantly portrayed by a gentle duet between lamenting piano and tender guitar. Robin passionately reiterates the words it shouldn’t be this way’ while the soundscape grows increasingly dark and obsessive before finally receding into the ambient electronica from the opening. Despite this impassioned plea, nothing has really changed.

In Robin’s words, The Raging Sea is “about our survival as individuals and collectively as a society. To sink or swim… It’s our choice which way we go. You have to go in the water to find out”. The rhythm section creates a relaxed groove and strummed acoustic guitar provides a gentle background. But soon more ambiguous harmonies and Paul’s persistent, questioning bass introduce a note of uncertainty. After the second chorus a mellifluous electric guitar provides a commentary that begins serenely but becomes progressively more impassioned. Towards the close, as Robin hypnotically reiterates the words consume me, his vocal harmonies create a shifting pattern of alternating chords that ebb and flow like the waves of the sea that break inexorably on the shore, impervious to the fate of humanity.

To dream is to escape is the strapline Returned To The Earth selected for this release, and it is a richly satisfying experience to escape into such exquisitely performed and beautifully recorded music. There is a natural flow and synergy running throughout the album with each track earning its place while adding to the overall emotional impact. This is an album to return to time and again as it continues to reveal its subtle secrets, and for me it is one of the outstanding releases of the year so far.

01. Dark Morality (7:18)
02. The Final Time (4:59)
03. Stalagmite Steeple (9:57)
04. Meaningless To Worth (6:08)
05. Die For Me (9:10)
06. The Raging Sea (5:35)

Total Time – 43:07

Robin Peachey – Vocals, Guitar, Piano, Synths
Paul Johnston – Drums, Guitar, Synths
Steve Peachey – Synths

Record Label: Giant Electric Pea (GEP)
Country of Origin: U.K.
Date of Release: 14th June 2024

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