Album of the Week: The Magnetic North – Orkney: Symphony of The Magnetic North
Orkney. By all accounts a spot on the Scottish landscape that is bleak and beautiful in equal measure. We’ve never been. In fact the closest we’ve come was on a lonely evening in nearby plook Thurso, where you can see its looming mass from the town’s harbour.
A spiritual, almost ghostly place, where the people generally regard themselves as Orcadian first and Scottish second, society isn’t exactly flush with famous folk hailing from the isles. One exception is musician Erland Cooper who emerged a few years back alongside ex-Verve, Blur and Gorillaz man Simon Tong under the banner Erland and the Carnival.
Producing a brace of differing and acclaimed albums, they’ve remained very much under the radar. That hasn’t stopped the pair teaming up with spectral songstress Hannah Peel for something different still.
As you might have ascertained from the title, this is a concept album based on Cooper’s homeland. While it doesn’t have the glacial sounds on Sigur Rós’ ( ) which instantly takes you to another barren rock, further north, there is enough here to firmly put across an instant sense of the dark archipelago via minimalist guitars and sweeping strings. Bleak, yes, but now we really, really want to go.
Bay of Skail is a suitably cinematic opening and if you’ve been underwhelmed by Hannah Peel’s solo material, it ably demonstrates that she can’t half sing and that this material is perfectly suited to her wistful voice.
High Life is a thing of sheer beauty. Cooper-led, Peel’s gentle coo-ing enhances the light use of strings. Like everything here, it doesn’t overdo things and while, yes, there’s a bit grandeur, it feels entirely natural. The Old Man of Hoy takes a different turn with some snythy beats, it would a good fit for the Carnival’s last album Nightingale which has a poppy edge.
String and brass are in ample supply over swirling Four Tet-esque keys on Betty Corrigal (named after a 1770s girl who killed herself on the islands who then visited Cooper telling him to write the album. Ahem) before Peel’s voice breaks out of the mist for an album highlight, another of which comes on Warbeth, taking in glockenspiel and ukulele along its haunting journey.
It feels to use that Erland Cooper might just have found his niche in reporting back from his homeland. Orkney: Symphony is something genuinely unique and very, very special.