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Music the Ears Hear as Poetry - Black Sails (2014)

Sometimes we turn to records for a good time, to dance our wigs off and lose track of ourselves. In other instances we’re looking to satisfy a certain craving, jonesing for some shreddy guitar riffs or some way to vent our frustration or anger, reaching for the Swans or some snarling fuck-you punk rock. Frequently we’re reaching back to solid old favorites to remind us of our path to where we are now, a bit of personalized nostalgia to help ground us in an uncertain present. Then there are the records we turn to when we need to hear the exquisite, the challenging, the inspiring, a piece of work deeply committed to exploring its compositional possibilities while never abandoning the basic requirement to satisfy, to entertain even as the receptors being lit up are not quite the same as those triggered by a quick trip back to rock’n’roll high school. And here we come to Black Sails, the newest release from Norwegian chamber psych outfit Sleepyard. Some records, indeed, exude artistry and this, without question, is one of them.

A frequently autumnal outing, laced with shafts of melancholy, delicately shadowed by a meditative bask of mortality and everywhere imbued with a Bergmanesque beauty that in the end amounts to an acceptance of joy despite the odds, Black Sails also feels indebted to the Nordic countryside, its wintry rhythms, the impossibly bright shards of sunlight sharp as splintered glass, phantom drifts of windswept snow passing briefly over the ice-grey fields. All very impressionistic of me, granted, but if nothing else this is the type music the ears hear as poetry.

Formed in Stavanger by Oliver Kersbergen with his brother Svein, Sleepyard have been plowing a deep dreamy furrow of often elaborately orchestrated avant-pop for over fifteen years now, Black Sails coming in as their sixth full-length. As is depressingly common the band have not enjoyed nearly the level of commercial success commensurate with the quality of recordings but one glance at the personnel on this album provides all the evidence necessary for one to twig the degree of respect Sleepyard commands from fellow musicians. Enlisting the likes of Mike Garson on piano, Henry Cow alumnus Geoff Leigh on flute, ace producer Richard Formby on bass, drums, and keys, and having original Fairport Convention member Judy Dyble singing as well as grabbing co-writing credits on a couple of tracks, while also securing the services of Jessamine vocalist Dawn Smithson and pulling in Nik Turner to blow some trilling space out saxophonics over a restlessly hypnotic take of the Seeds “Chocolate River” (dedicated to Sky Saxon), one might understand if there’s a gleam of pride in the Kersbergen eye. Should indeed there be one, however, it’s most certainly not the product of having attracted such star power but rather the results their hosts have marshaled into album form.

To go from the Smithson-sung (and co-authored) opener “1000 Year Vacation” with its bright waterdrop piano, its somber elegance and a tempo that scans like a torch song slowed to the pace of reflective existential wonder (the gripping haunt of the thing enough to merit a moody instrumental reprise as the album’s penultimate track, Leigh’s melismatic flute in place of voice), to the arctic shimmer of “Midnight Bright,” grounded in a palatial arrangement and shot through with a keyboard gravitas thanks to co-writers Svein and Tom-Erik Løe, to either Dyble-voiced selection – the spacious “Rainy Day Vibration,” blessed with a frosty enigma and floating like the very gist of consciousness or the fading celestial wander of “Satellite Calling,” puritific, gently wavering on the gossamer horizon and quite possibly the birth moment of glacial folk – is, to put it in the most distillate form possible, a trip. This is a record you can close your eyes to. Journeys abound, unprescribed, guided tours down neural pathways where the listener herself is the only true guide. What prevents it from being a purely internal experience is the canny aural expansiveness one encounters at every turn. It’s as if those neural passageways are somehow overlaid on the casual trail maps of the tangible, phenomenological world and we’re carried over the contours as if by some sort of intuitive fiat.

“Milk and Honey,” treading more bucolic with a soft vernal sprightliness, seeps with the life-affirming relief of the first snowmelt under the glaring sunny chill, enveloping with the pizzicato pluck of steel guitar, the angel-sighing vocal, a crystalline vibe note struck every measure and a constant shroud of treated synth until you can almost see your own hopeful breath lingering in the gelid air. “Butterflies” follows suit if, as per its title, in a passingly more kinetic mode, spindly, minor-keyed piano cascades sprinkled over a rippling blanket of lower end keyboard figures, the piece, short though it is, one of those stop-you-in-your-track tracks, while “Powercut” skews more cinematic, slightly wider of screen and deeper of tension, the low glow of something a bit ominous in the slipstream, in your blind spot, a sense exacerbated by the subtly lowing bass note humming underfoot throughout. By the time we transit over the fog-scraped escarpments of “Old Misty,” its brief tenure marked by echoes of ghostly industry, by whisperings and mystery, it’s easy to feel we’ve been transported and that, if we shut our eyes then open them, we’ll find ourselves in an elsewhere, shadows and strangely lit atmospherics dually projected across the imagination in patterns that mesmerize.

As stated up top, these are but interpretations that suit the material as I hear it, insinuated guideposts to give you some idea. You, of course, will have your own and there’s a rare generosity in that, a gift both to and from the spirit that resides in listener and composer alike and it’s that open-ended transaction between the artist and the ear that may be Sleepyard’s greatest legacy, one built on handsomely and, it must be said, generously here on Black Sails.

Dave Cantrell -