The Sky Untuned marks yet another compelling assemblage from one of the UK’s most exciting artists.
Laura Cannell’s unique brand of music fits loosely within a small conclave of contemporary UK folk artists who have twisted the glance to the past back around to the prospect of a grim future. Like Richard Dawson, whose recent Peasant applied his splintered English Primitive guitar style and avant-garde lyricism to conjuring the ghosts of those whose ancient bones litter the idyllic countryside, Cannell’s haunting violin, often recorded in ruined and abandoned churches that carry the acoustics of her scraping, moaning phrasing to chilling depths. Her sound is literally informed by the rot of Old England, casting her music in bleak tones.
The Sky Untuned finds Cannell returning to the ruins of St. Andrew’s Church in Norfolk, the site where she recorded 2017’s Hunter Huntress Hawker, and per usual her performances were captured in a single take with a mixture of improvisation and structured composition. Cannell’s recent burst of prolific recording and touring have clearly ignited her creative spark, and the seven tracks here point to a more explicit theme than some of her other albums. In this case, the album is informed by the concept of the music of the spheres, the medieval notion of some kind of vast harmony aligning the cosmos. That Cannell filters this grandiose subject through her more intimately scaled, droning style at once suggests that her minimalist aesthetic is the perfect reflection of a giant, unfathomable order and a more tangible application that exposes the contradictions in notions of total harmony. Just listen to her scraping, darting improvisations on “Flaxen Fields,” which are driven further into strange tonal spikes by her alternate tunings. The song’s idyllic title that belies the tension of her unpredictable diversions and ominous atmosphere, to be reminded that the notion of a music of the spheres was concocted during perhaps the most chaotic, ignorant, violent time in European history.
One of the weapons in Cannell’s arsenal of esoteric techniques is overbowing, in which the wooden part of a violin bow is dragged under the instrument as the hairs are pulled over the strings so that more than one note can be played at once. Listen to the polyphonic “Untethered,” which you’d swear was piece together from overdubs if the press material for the album didn’t make a point of stressing that this was all recorded live. As she grinds out a frantic loop of shrill noise, underneath she places a more coherent and harmonic, yet no less tense, echo that suggests some order beneath chaos. “Flaming Torches” has the stentorian, stark beauty of a medieval war epic, but its elegant phrasing is constantly set against itself with slightly out of sync harmonies that rupture the straightforward movement with internal conflict.
Cannell also favors the use of recorders that she plays two at a time, mimicking her stringed self-accompaniment. “Landmark” sounds out against a colossal blank space, the entwined breathy whines of the recorders like the first aquatic creatures to crawl hesitatingly onto land. Notes constantly break toward dissonance, deconstructing the minimal composition in real time. “Organum” is more fleshed out but still driven by the contrast between the two undulating woodwinds. Here, Cannell plays more in line with stereotypical notions of courtyard fair music, but her brittle phrasing conjures imagery of a decimated town, the revelry undercut by some unspoken trauma.
There are, however, moments of unvarnished beauty on The Sky Untuned. For all the shifting, moaning notes in “Transient Thresholds,” Cannell plays with a tenderness that fills her warping string bends with delicacy and searching. It’s the track that most embodies the celestial scale of Cannell’s inspiration, a space-folk rumination that drifts elegantly in the void. Closer “Striking the Lost Bells” fully joins the pastoral and the cosmic, gently descending back to Earth only to be ensnared in the same mortal impermanence that defines so much of Cannell’s work. This is music out of time, music that feels as if it were discovered tucked away in one of the rotting churches where the artist records even as it also feels not of this world. In foregrounding the arcane pseudoscience of the album’s theme, Cannell has found the purest analogy for her unorthodox bran of historic-futurism, and The Sky Untuned marks yet another compelling assemblage from one of the UK’s most exciting artists.