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July Skies - The English Cold

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Artist: July Skies

Album: The English Cold

Label: Make Mine Music

Review date: Mar. 3, 2005

The English Cold’s artwork makes it clear from the get-go that there’s more to this release than just the music: the bottom of the front cover bears the simple inscription “1939 - 1945” and the back cover is a bomber’s-eye-view of a pastoral village with a eulogy – “For Lost Airmen” – sitting plainly above an equally suggestive track listing. Before even cracking the liner notes to read vignettes about farm life near a bomber base during the Second World War, you know you’re getting into something involved.

Musically, the only definitive thing about The English Cold is its big, basking, autumnal mood, and the July Skies players – brought together by multi-instrumentalist and composer Antony Harding – seem to only exist long enough to realize that mood in any way they can. Aside from omnipresent ghostly guitar picking, most of the sounds that appear do so just once or twice. Even with all of its lofty layering and arrangements, the producers have taken care to ensure that no single element sticks out or takes away from other parts.

Electronics abound in The English Cold’s landscape and normally stay well-obscured by minutes of canyon-sized reverb. Effects pedals and synthesizers act quietly to create new palettes for each track, but “Waiting to Land” brings synthetic sounds unashamedly to center stage. A relatively unprocessed drum machine ticks out an impatient loop that draws immediate attention in an otherwise untethered sea of loose expression. Harding’s vocals stand out on the album’s opener, the weighty “Farmers and Villagers Living Within the Shadow of Aerodromes,” and then again near the end on “August Country Fires.” Strangely, the emotionally unfulfilling “Farmers” is the least convincing track of the lot; it asks too much of the listener, to immediately dive into what ends up becoming a very emotional album. Thankfully, Harding’s vocals normally take on much more effective sweeping qualities and serve a mostly instrumental function, even when they’re wordy.

Casual listeners might be tempted to call The English Cold “headphone music” because of its intimacy and attention to detail, but they’d be missing the genuine slow rock intensity that “The Mighty 8th” can deliver in open air. They’d also be missing a big part of the original mission of Harding’s project – to “sketch out the sound of the skies” – that becomes something of an augmented-reality field recording in “Strangers in Our Lanes.”

The English Cold doesn’t attempt to tell the story of the second World War. It’s simply one young man searching for something to say, looking through decades of history at the landscape around him. There’s nothing dire or violent here either – the album succeeds marvelously in painting some kind of portrait of life in wartime England from a great distance, without towing all the historical weight and complexities the war brought about. Antony Harding returned from his 60-year journey with a grand orange echo of an album, as sincere an expression that anyone today could hope to produce about the era.

By Trent Wolbe

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