Spindle Ensemble: Inkling
LP | CD | DL
Released 27th May 2021
Pre-order from Bandcamp
The sophomore album from contemporary chamber quartet, Spindle Ensemble, is a real box of delights. These are six imaginative and exquisite soundscapes that paint vivid pictures. Gordon Rutherford reviews for Louder Than War.
It’s lovely to be in at the start of something, knowing that at some future point you may have licence to play your “I was there” card. Very occasionally, it pans out that way, but, of course, most of the time it doesn’t. Whilst I can’t be one hundred percent certain, I have a good feeling about this one. Inkling, the sophomore album from Spindle Ensemble, is something of a landmark, carrying the honour of being the first full album released on the brand-new label, Hidden Notes Records. Not that Hidden Notes are new to the business of putting together great music. Founded by independent arts magazine, Good On Paper, Hidden Notes actually began as a festival that focused on showcasing the very best of modern classical and avant-garde composers. In just a couple of short years, it has become a name on everyone’s lips, with past and future performers including Jonny Greenwood, Peter Broderick, Penguin Café and the brilliant Hatis Noit. And, of course, Spindle Ensemble. Buoyed by the success of the festival, an idea was hatched to launch a label. Spindle Ensemble’s Inkling is quite the perfect introduction.
Such credentials provide a solid guarantee of quality and I’m glad to report that Inkling maintains Hidden Notes’ high standard. Like a great river, this is music that ebbs and flows unpredictably. Sometimes rushing, often meandering, but always full of intricacies and capricious feints. For much of it, it is utterly captivating. So, what do you need to know about Spindle Ensemble? Well, they are a quartet, based in Bristol. In terms of personnel, they are led by composer and pianist Daniel Inzani, who is joined by tuned percussionist Harriet Riley, cellist Jo Silverston and violinist Caelia Lunniss. Their sound is modern classical, but it comes with an innovative and improvisational twist that has a pleasant tendency to stop you in your tracks.
Inkling opens with the mournful aura of the title track. As it unfolds, it feels like a requiem, as piano and strings interact dramatically. Then, suddenly, it shifts. Propelled by the strings, it gathers momentum and Riley’s vibraphone delivers tumbling, cascading arpeggios. The track feels like it has gone from standing at the lip of a deep well to actually falling in and descending uncontrollably. Our tumble stops as abruptly as it began and we return to those sad, melancholic strings again. And, as it does, it strikes you that this composition has something of a fairy tale feel to it, conjuring visions of Rapunzel and Little Red Riding Hood. Grimm, but far from grim. Actually, in so many ways, Inkling (the track) is what you would probably hold up to the world if you wanted to describe Spindle Ensemble in less than eight minutes. It just oozes outstanding musicianship and incredibly innovative deviations that surprise and delight.
It gets better. The following track, Okemah Sundown, is the album’s highlight. Until hearing this, I was unaware that Okemah was a town in Oklahoma. Indeed, it’s a pretty significant burg in music history as it is the birthplace of the great Woody Guthrie. Okemah Sundown may well be the perfect music to evoke images of that particular place. But before I took my geography lesson, this track actually conjured up images not of Oklahoma, but of its neighbouring state, New Mexico. It has a real Morricone feel, a vibe synonymous with the epic spaghetti westerns of Sergio Leone. You listen to it and those vast, dusty plains are immediately brought to mind. It’s a track that has a much fuller feel than anything else on the album, undoubtedly a consequence of the core quartet being augmented by an additional six musicians and their assorted instruments. Notably, the timpani of Josh Cottam and the mesmeric snare of Daniel Truen bring another dimension. But the star of the show here is Conrad Singh, whose guitar brings an authentic western twang. Listen out for the opening bars in particular, where Singh borrows from REM’s Peter Buck the memorable opening guitar line from Leave.
The mood reverts back to mournful again with Caligo. The strings sound as though they are transporting a freightload of sorrow before Riley revises the atmosphere by bringing a slightly far-Eastern feel with her tuned percussion. Again, we have that unpredictability when, halfway through, everything drops out. Faintly, delicately, Inzani’s Celtic harp is heard before Lunniss’s violin takes over. Soon, everything else is there, supporting and underpinning, including fantastic bottom from Stevie Toddler’s upright bass.
Things take an urgent turn when Inzani’s frantic piano introduces Chase. Within seconds it is duelling with Riley’s marimba. Like two butterflies in the height of summer, they flirt and tease and dance around each other before Lunniss intervenes to chaperone them. Masterfully, Inzani’s composition does quite literally give the impression of a Chase, as it unfolds with ever-increasing velocity. That leads us into the album’s longest track, the ten minute plus of Waves. After the madness of Chase, it is calming and soothing and, like Okemah Sundown, is amplified by a host of additional musicians. It’s a beautiful composition and the sections where it really has impact are those when Inzani’s piano pieces summon the spirit of Erik Satie. But the brilliance doesn’t end there. Once again, we have another of those trademark transitions, when the flow departs from the minimalism of Inzani’s piano to the full ensemble-plus, becoming a sweeping military march driven by the authoritative percussion. It’s quite magnificent and, actually, quite sufficient. But as it keeps transitioning, it becomes like one of those tricky wingers in your football team who keeps going back to humiliate his marker one more time rather than just getting the cross in.
With that, we come to the album’s formal closing track, Genie. Again, we are treated to those beautiful melancholic, sweeping strings that are so moving. Genie is the most stripped back, restrained piece on this collection, yet, proving the adage that less is more, it lands with real majesty. It would be incredibly remiss of me not to praise the production and recording quality on this particular track. The acoustics of the strings and piano are stunningly captured and it feels like the musicians are playing in the same room. It all combines to make a quite wonderful closer.
When you add up all of those parts, the sum total is a great album. It’s one that keeps surprising you, is superbly composed and adroitly performed. When launching a new label, you want your first cut to be special and Inkling is everything that I’m sure the team at Hidden Notes were hoping for.
As an aficionado of both vinyl and great design, I cannot end this piece without commending Hidden Notes on the incredibly eye-catching coloured vinyl edition. The platter itself is a melange of colour, in white and shades of orange, and, visually speaking, it is the most stunning cut of vinyl I can recall seeing for some time. Kudos to Adam Hinks, who I believe was responsible for the design and artwork. Furthermore, the sleeve notes are provided by BBC Radio 3’s Nick Luscombe. All in all, that’s a great package. Of course, it could be argued that all of that is a little superficial and that what really counts is the music. Pleasingly, Inkling sounds just as good as it looks.
If the aesthetics really aren’t your thing, don’t worry, you haven’t been forgotten about, because investors in the digital version get a bonus in the shape of a seventh track. Menilmontant is a lovely track, exquisitely played, but, as is frequently the way with bonus tracks, I found it a little less engaging than the tracks that comprise the album proper. Because of all of that, my recommendation to prospective buyers of this wonderful album would be to plump for the vinyl version, and I’d recommend moving quickly to get hold of the limited edition cut whilst it lasts.
Photo credit: Paul Blakemore
All words by Gordon Rutherford. More writing by Gordon can be found in his archive.