Fovea Hex - Here Is Where We Used To Sing [Janet Records / Die Stadt - 2011]It’s been over three and a half years since Clodagh Simonds’ Fovea Hex concluded its critically acclaimed trilogy of EPs, Neither Speak Nor Remain Silent.
In the interim, the singer and multi-instrumentalist has been carefully cultivating the songs that now form Fovea Hex’s debut album, letting them evolve as they rolled around her international band of hand-picked players. The core collaborators, returning to the fold from the handful of live shows they performed together following ‘Neither Speak…’, are fellow Dubliners Laura Sheeran and Cora Venus Lunny on voice and violins respectively, alongside Scotland’s Michael Begg (Human Greed) and England’s Colin Potter (Nurse With Wound) whose electronic erosions and aural illusions are again set in equilibrium with the traditional instruments that range through the ages from the ancient (psaltery) through the classical periods (lyre) to the more familiar ‘early modern’ sounds of piano and strings.
Indeed, it was this balancing act that seemed to draw much attention and puzzlement throughout the coverage of their earlier EPs, often lazily reduced to a ‘folk ambient’ tag. In comparison, ‘Here Is Where We Used To Sing’ demonstrates an even tighter integration of its instrumentation, stepping away from the delicately glacial movements of their former glories into warmer seasons of more intense and confident communion. With a microscopic attention to the qualities of every sound, each of the eleven tracks has a deep richness that almost overpowers the simplicity at the heart of many of the songs where spare melodies resolve unpredictably while lyrics lament the passing of time.
Central to the sound is Clodagh Simonds’ extraordinary voice, bearing influences from traditional sean-nós singing styles and Gregorian harmonies, with embellishments reduced to bare essentials. About half of the songs are sung alone, like on the opener, ‘Far From Here’, that gently immerses the listener in a succulent sound world of a graceful piano, respiring harmonium and plucky kalimba and lyre underpinned by the ethereal trails of Begg’s ‘mixed treatments’. Elsewhere, the grain of her voice is intertwined with Laura Sheeran’s to proudly produce full-bodied harmonies, like on ‘Falling Things’ where their elemental song of wind and rain springs out of Brian Eno’s sonorous imaginings of the bell tones from a 10,000 year clock. Such harmonising is at its most seductive, perhaps, on ‘A Hymn to Sulphur’, the midpoint to the album and possibly its highest peak, as members of Italy’s Larsen (Fabrizio Mondonese Palumbo and Marco ‘Il Blue’ Schiavo) and cellist Julia Kent are rapt in an intoxicating dance with a strong scent of eastern mysticism.
Although the line-up is never static, with Clodagh Simonds the only constant, the album speaks cohesively as a highly focussed and polished whole. As such, it binds so deftly the studied traditions of song craft with the free experimentation of sound art to make them seem like wholly natural ingredients of a new form that’s been patiently allowed to grow. And knowing its own potency, the album is wisely sequenced (and tempered at just under 40 minutes): three short instrumental pieces are peppered strategically throughout that bring Begg’s and Potter’s electronic atmospherics to the fore as brief meditative exercises preparing the room for further enchantments.
And if these short instrumental vignettes leave you with a taste for more extended, wayward excursions free of the song form, the first 400 editions of the album come with a second CD where Begg, Potter and William Basinski were given a track a piece to create their own world from within. Michael Begg takes clippings from ‘Falling Things’ to form his own micro climate where the shining slices of violin and bowed cymbal graft on to the dark undercurrents of cello swimming elegantly over his own ‘electronic beds’, brooding and suspenseful yet serene. Next, Colin Potter’s reworking of ‘A Hymn to Sulphur’ builds a compelling momentum without warping the sound sources – bowed instruments slowly rise and fall like oceanic waves only to disappear as the listener emerges through a tunnel of raw, looped vocal harmonies elevated to a slipstream of insistent strings and deep piano. Finally, William Basinski uses cross sections from ‘Still Unseen’ and freezes them in time – the original’s rendered almost unrecognisable with just the occasional evidence of its violin soloing from deep inside the frosted mix of divergent tape loops forming a temple of ice that we’re allowed to walk around but remains impenetrable. Russell Cuzner