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A Broken Consort - Box of Birch

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Artist: A Broken Consort

Album: Box of Birch

Label: Tompkins Square

Review date: Jun. 18, 2009

When terms like “pastoral psychogeography” are tossed around, even if it is by the folks at The Wire, there are definitely grounds to be suspicious. New age neologisms of such academically esoteric proportions tend to give the music in question more credit than it’s due. Most bands that hide behind high concepts do so because they lack experience or a sense of purpose, the root causes of mediocre output due to a lack of emotional investment. But in the case of Richard Skelton’s project A Broken Consort, there’s a lifetime of memories and emotion poured into the literally monumental Box of Birch.

The album first appeared in 2007 as an actual box of birch on Skelton’s own Sustain-Release Private Press. It was ornately and lovingly crafted in memory of his late wife, Louise, combining her artistic output with Skelton’s synergistic compositions. Rereleased this year on a much larger scale by Tompkins Square, the evocative packaging that stood as a memorial to his wife may be lost to more conventional formats, but the music stands as strong as ever.

The result is a many-textured, naturalistic record that goes beyond ambience to strike at the emotional and physical core of his home in Lancashire. This new edition includes “an exclusive series of artworks which draw on the hidden histories of the English landscape, and their narratives of displacement and loss,” creating a new relationship between sound and image that is authentic and completely unbelabored.

It’s less an act of composition and more a careful curating of mood and tone that tells a history of love and loss. Wooden guitar and chamber strings lie at the heart of the shuffle, equal parts Bela Bartok and John Fahey. It’s the rest of the odd sounds that push and pull the structure of each song, though, that begin to flesh out the rest of the record. Orphaned keyboards, metallic fugues, scattered percussion and the delicate rending of metal against metal talk back and forth, helping shape a tonal landscape that’s both recognizable and transient.

Skelton opens his home and his heart and allows whatever’s in there to pour out in a form both primal and articulate. I’ve never been to Lancashire, and I haven’t experienced loss on the same scale as Skelton. But after some time with Box of Birch, I feel like I’ve got a pretty good handle on where he’s coming from.

By Evan Hanlon

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