Marcus Hamblett – Concrete (Wilkommen Records)
CD | DL
Marcus Hamblett’s debut album mixes post-rock exploration and retro soundtrack vibes with effortless grace, says Louder Than War’s Paul Margree.
If you’re a fan of a certain strain of pastoral indie folk, the chance are you will have heard Marcus Hamblett, even if you haven’t heard of him. A long serving session musician he’s worked with Laura Marling, Willy Mason and Broken Social Scene, among many others. He also plays in stutter rock outfit Eyes and No Eyes and is part of baroque pop outfit Sons of Noel and Adrian.
For his debut solo album Hamblett has managed to chart a course between these diverse styles, boarding a bullet train into different country altogether. This is purebred space age bachelor pad music, full of open chords, glistening spaces and jazz inflected twangs. Music redolent of a certain vision of the future, of gleaming ultra-modern cities powered by clean energy and heathy, of a healthy, well-adjusted populace strolling around wearing lightweight fabrics in a range of neutral tones. It’s the universe of Iain M. Banks’ so-called ‘post-scarcity’ Culture rather than the rainy, polluted hell of Blade Runner and a million other dystopian sci-fi films.
You could just call if ‘post-rock’, I suppose, but it is particular strand of this oft-maligned sub-genre. For many people, post-rock evokes memories of bands like Godspeed! You Black Emperor and Slint with their template of looming instrumental heaviness, not to mention Sigur Ros’s own brand of transcendent melodrama (coming soon to a polar bear montage near you folks!)
Enlightened Louder Than War readers will of course remember the other strain of post-rock, that of Tortoise, Gastr del Sol and Six Organs of Admittance. Often still instrumental, these bands favoured more light than shade, with a deftness of technique that never tipped over into grandstanding, and a sonic palette music moving effortless from space-age elevator muzak through stuttering modernist glitch to autumnal Americana.
Hamblett’s assemblages are distinguished additions to this lineage. His compositions tend to emerge from a foundation of drums – occasionally provided by long-time collaborator Thomas Heather, other times programmed – some analogue synth and Hamblett’s distinctive clear, polished guitar tone. Other instrumentation adds washes of colour and texture to this gleaming core – flute, harp, bass clarinet and vocals.
Concrete has a more playful, occasionally scruffier bent than his predecessors, whose pristine recordings tended towards the stern and airless. Thomas Heather’s rolling snares on Nocturne add a pleasing roughness to the track’s polished surfaces, and there’s a great moment later on in that track when the perfectly layered drums and synths cut out, leaving Hamblett’s belligerent guitar line to stand alone.
That said, there’s still a groovily widescreen quality to all these pieces, exemplified by Three Four’s stately, waltzing grace. Like the soundtrack to some long-lost spy thriller of the early 1960’s, it oozes minor chord style, Emma Gatrill’s eerie, wordless vocalisations giving it just enough easy listening flavour. It’s as icily beautiful as a young Michael Caine prowling round Chamonix in a scalpel-sharp suit (single-crease narrow-cut trousers, three-button cuff jacket with high rear vents, Turnbull & Asser shirt, Chelsea boots) in some long lost Harry Lime flick, full of melancholy and repressed violence.
By the final track, the 10-minute Stony Ground, Hamblett has broken free of any Chicago-sound influences, with gossamer-fine, multi-tracked guitar trills that hang and glisten like spider webs in a bright spring morning.
After an opening section of spiralling, cascading notes Hamblett takes things down a notch, reconfiguring things from within before gliding off into folkier direction, his melodies curling around almost in a jig, accompanied only by his own wordless chants. It evokes images of a poor duped traveller in a mysterious fairy tale, following tracks left in the dirt by some mystical creature in the hope of priceless treasure, chasing it all day before it vanishes into the dusk and he’s left alone in the half-light, scratching his head in confusion.