Black Elk – Sparks
Posted In: Black Elk, Black Elk - Sparks, Clem Leek, Danny Norbury, Home Normal, Ian Hawgood, James Catchpole, Tim Martin
Comments: 3 Responses
The striking and bleakly dramatic photography associated with Black Elk’s ‘Sparks’ can indeed be an arresting representation of the music inside. A mist covered panorama hangs overhead, murky and heavily atmospheric with dense, low-lying cloud. Overlooking the longevity and endurance of nature’s shorelines, a vague, artificial landscape looms ahead as a symbol of humanity’s presence, as misty as the clouds which surround our destiny. Despite this overcast setting, the photographic vista still looks upon a frozen memory submersed in a bittersweet remembrance. Black Elk seem to conjure up this misty mood inside their spacious music very effectively, representing a halfway point between spirits soaring high with bright optimism, and dim, suppressed moods of unclear, slightly dampened thoughts; buried emotions spun from a distant memory. Black Elk’s hazily lit voyages are like an imagined paradise caged in a stifling, dismal reality, one which is left standing on a grainy and colourless beach. The quartet’s music is often just slightly out of the reach of the listener, as their atmospheres sink in deeply without enwrapping us in a suffocating, intimate embrace. It leaves us unable to fully fathom the hazy quality of the music which filters through, and this creates a special mood. ‘Sparks’ seems to revel in a blurring of clarity, clouded as it is in a thin but present haze, gazing into an unseen future, yet with the warmest of smiles.
It is unclear where the quartet’s inspiration has arisen, because Black Elk is a lone beast of beauty. The Black Elk quartet is made up of Ian Hawgood, Tim Martin, Danny Norbury and Clem Leek, musicians who hardly need introducing. Their music is a seamless blend of acoustic instrumentation, electric guitars, carefully constructed electronic layers, deep, evocative drones and the natural tones of cello and piano. Voices, which play as an effective element throughout by breaking down the atmosphere, as well as adding to it, call out from afar in the murk, entering and falling in the thickest of fog and creating an evocative sense of liberty. One could be forgiven for thinking that this artistic unity leads to a musical dream team, and the music on Sparks gives rise to this notion. Yet, Black Elk is very much its own creature, with only smudges of individual identity shining through. Always attentive and immediate, their ambience is close to heavenly, allowing the listener both hazy, drifting drones and light, lucid alterations in instrumentation. It is this variation which keeps the listener lightly hypnotised and attracted, but always ready to snap out of a deepening trance caused by a drone. This allows us to view the whole photograph as one, instead of a dominating image in the foreground catching our eyes and obscuring other, beautiful details. A glowing halo surrounds the music. It also flows stunningly in sublime ambience, which one would expect from these artists. As with anything, expectations can very quickly lead to disappointments, but Sparks brushes any assumptions aside wonderfully. All instruments and electronics revolve and cycle, supporting eachother in a healthy symmetry and counterbalancing all, while never outstaying their welcome. Sparks fires off a yin of colours and a yang of emotions. You can almost taste the salt in the sea air.
Sparks comes to life instantly. Within seconds, a gorgeous trickling of notes arise from the piano’s keys, and with a surety steps lightly onto a beach soft with memories, moving forwards on tiptoes bravely into an uncertain future. As the deep notes are released, unfiltered, a feeling of unrivaled exhilaration enters the mind, like running along a beach and past the shoreline in a full freedom of flight, as care-free as the sun glittering off of the waves. The touch over the piano sparkles and flows as notes patter down like an enriching shower of raindrops. It is a sublime precursor for what is to come. The stride slows for the remainder of Sparks, like slight stumbles over the uneven sand, but it is one which always advances.
Diving into a pool of deepest blue, the dense piano creates a delicate waterfall of ascending and cascading notes, oceans deep and beautifully expressive in their wild abandon. The contrasting higher and lower registers refreshes, and the slightly concealed, deep timbre of Leek’s piano perhaps calls for a use of lower notes. The melody leading up to the chord, and then the chord itself, becomes drenched in reverb and hangs suspended in the air, like the weightless feeling upon leaving the ground or diving into the sea, and the next piece blossoms into a wide spacious expanse. The piano has suddenly, yet gently, metamorphosed, reborn into a new world. Feminine vocals lay trapped in the grey of the atmosphere, forever indistinct. The piano echoing outwards is lost to the sea, swimming alongside apparitions of notes which have just recently passed. Cast out to sea, the notes are now adrift in a murky fog where they become shadows of themselves. It could be said that the heavy reverb adds an extra layer of brightness, extending their life and vitality instead of blowing it out.
‘As Wraith’ offers a heavenly electric guitar of the cleanest tone, a clarity and a focus. It’s a lovely musing, as light or as deep as you like, but always absorbing. Notes slide down in a descending loop, slowly dancing in a circle alongside the more classical strings. Using the guitar ever so softly and as a poetic voice, this piece also teaches us a lesson in music, too – the combining of multiple instruments shows they can all live in harmony, happily and healthily, with eachother, something we would do well to remember.
A shimmering ambience awaits in ‘Jokull’. It’s our first real encounter with any drone, and in a similar vein to the music of Jonsi & Alex. Shimmery ambience hisses beside the foaming sea. The mood is atmospheric, yet never bleak, drifting along in a haze of static and light foam. The drones help to add substance, and this is where the true depths of Black Elk are unleashed. Levels of increased static move forward, and the tide has come in.
The piano of ‘Lost Hearts’ leisurely laps like a calm ocean wave, before it is engulfed and overwhelmed by the lightest of fizzing static, dissolving all. Undercurrents start to colour out the imagery, reversing into black and white and draining the piano of all its bright colours. The piano begins to echo and bleed into other notes, tumbling and turning in on itself in a daze; she is dying.
As the piano dissolves, it leaves us facing ‘The Blackest Sky’, which is, in my eyes, the beautiful summit. An arising, melodic and ghostly feminine whisper is waiting to be found out in the unclear, vague atmosphere, haunting the space and a spectre of what she once was. As a quiet and slightly muddied piano melody repeats, calling to her to come forward out from the mist, it is at this point during the thickest of atmosphere the depths of Black Elk’s compositions become clear. The piano’s call is full of longing, like a call to a lover lost to the world. As the music progresses, the light is slowly evaporated, maybe against its will, seeping out until the bleakly lit grey is all that is left, acting as a premonition for what is to come.
Like photographs of different memories placed side by side, the different instruments give off different emotions. The cello’s heartbreaking resonance lends itself to the beauty of sadness in its thick, mournful tone, and the bright piano plays with our elation. Sparks is never a sad or a mournful record. It is delicious in its thoughtful nature, satiating our minds and hearts, and it’s extremely polished, mastered as it was by Lawrence English. The faintest of breaths of modern classical are present due to the cello and piano, but because of the ambience surrounding the music, Sparks doesn’t really escape its floating atmosphere, and one could say that it doesn’t want to. The strings do not allow any level of sadness an entry point; the cello is more sensitive to the mood than sombre. The ghostly voices give a modern, contemporary flavour to the compositions, and the largely feminine vocals keep the mood airy and light. Overindulgence is never on the quartet’s minds, and the music doesn’t suffer this fate. A future follow-up connected to Sparks, Anchor, is due out at the end of this year, and if it is anywhere near the quality seen here – which is a high possibility, or even a probability – then we are in for another special outing from Black Elk. As with much of ambient music, secrets are revealed with every listen, and subtle revelations are confessed to us within the music. By leaving their individual personalities and artistic fingerprints largely behind, a coalescing and transformation has left a music they can call their own.
The piano is ultimately the guiding light blazing out of Sparks. Yet, with a resigned acceptance, it too must end. All too aware of their upcoming fate, the closing piano loops a weary melody, lost in reverb, slipping and tiring in their soft disintegration; it, too, has evolved from a youthful, bounding spirit full of the incandescence of youth; a time far removed from the effects of ageing, far away in the distance, to one that declines imminently. Finally, they become more sure of themselves, fragile but still glimmering with a young heart. As extra intervals mix with the light melody, the piano becomes the last standing survivor, all on its own and displaying a fragility previously unseen. The contrasts between the exuberant life seen in its beginnings are a once fond memory that is slowly lost, but one which still brings a frail smile in its fragments of remembrance. Still sparkling golden, the disintegration of the last note is a glorious one, and, as ever, it is final.
- James Catchpole for Fluid Radio