The List MAY 10, 2011 - by Neil Cooper


Beguiling ensemble album featuring singer Clodagh Simonds and Brian Eno

The hidden past of Fovea Hex vocalist and focal point Clodagh Simonds is almost as colourful as her present on this beguilingly mysterious album of new songs supported by an ensemble - neither the words 'band' nor 'group' lend the project the gravitas it requires - made up of leftfield luminaries including Brian Eno, Nurse With Wound's Colin Potter and Human Greed's Michael Begg (the latter two of whom were responsible for the Fragile Pitches sonic installation at Edinburgh's St Giles Cathedral during the city's Hogmanay 2009/10 arts programme). Live too, Ms Simonds and co are well-connected, having performed in Paris at the behest of film director David Lynch for the opening of his retrospective exhibition in the gardens of the Cartier Foundation.

This is a long way from Simonds' teenage origins as one third of the vocal frontline of Dublin-based folksters Mellow Candle, which she formed with friends at convent school in the late 1960s. In the early 1970s Simonds would appear as a backing vocalist on Thin Lizzy's second album, as well as Mike Oldfield's post Tubular Bells prog-crossover projects, Hergest Ridge and Ommadawn before decamping to New York. Here she worked with film composer Carter Burwell and radical theatre troupe LaMama before effectively dropping off the musical radar.

Simonds' early work has been covered by All About Eve and Pavement's Stephen Malkmus, while she popped into view in 1999 to sing a Syd Barrett/James Joyce number, Golden Hair on Eno collaborator Russell Mills' Pearl & Umbra album. Between 2005 and 2007 with Fovea Hex Simonds released a trilogy of EPs. Collectively, Bloom, Huge and Allure were put under the umbrella title of Neither Speak Nor Remain Silent.

That's the context, then, for this elegant and melancholy collection that mixes strings with electronics to underscore Simonds' remarkable piano-led songs of innocence and experience, dominated by a voice that's too steely to be deigned ethereal, but remains too otherworldly to file alongside more common-or-garden female singer-songwriters. The impression on the opening Far From Here through to the finale of Still Unseen is of little baroque sketches that have blown in from Bloomsbury in some sacred mix of world-weary preciousness. The pace is languid, the arrangements intricate and fragile, the reference points opaque and incantatory, with Brian Eno's co-opted bells coursing through Falling Things (Where Does A Girl Begin?) on which Laura Sheeran takes waif-like lead vocal in between playing musical saw. All of which conspires to leave the listener deliciously, deliriously giddy.

If you're looking for contemporary fellow travellers, Fovea Hex's nearest ancestor is probably This Mortal Coil, the 4AD Records 'supergroup', who between 1984 and 1991 released a trilogy of compendiums that featured interpretations of neglected works by the likes of Tim Buckley, Chris Bell, Syd Barrett and other cult singer/songwriters from the 1960s and 1970s (Buckley's Song To The Siren, as shimmeringly interpreted by Cocteau Twins Elizabeth Fraser and Robin Guthrie, was This Mortal Coil's breakout hit). The This Mortal Coil records featured a myriad of female voices, underscored largely by dark, electronic treatments and arrangements. The neomediaevalisms of Dead Can Dance, whose members also appeared on the This Mortal Coil records, are also fellow travellers with Simmonds and co, as are the deep vocal stylings of PuMaJaW's Pinkie McClure.

Rewinding back to 1975, one could claim kin between Simonds and the singers on Voices and Instruments, an album of works by composers Jan Steele and John Cage released on Brian Eno's short-lived Obscure Records label. Consisting largely of settings of poems by James Joyce and EE Cummings, Voices and Instruments is a low-key chamber record featuring the likes of improv veterans Steve Beresford and Fred Frith, and playfully dubbed by some as quietgarde. The intonations of Janet Sherbourne on Steele's All Day, with lyrics by Joyce, Wyatt's interpretation of Cage's setting of another Joyce lyric, The Wonderful Widow Of Eighteen Springs as well as Cummings' Experiences No 2, and especially Bley's take on Cage and Cummings' Forever and Sunsmell are all awash with familiar sounding intonations that seem to have trickled all the way down to Here Is Where We Used To Sing.

In truth, however, the roots of Simonds' piano-led material dates far further back, and in execution and arrangement is closer to a slowly-burning twenty-first century melding of mediaeval motets and nineteenth century Lieder or art song cycles a la Schubert or Mahler. Such out and out naked material has duly been both fleshed out and protected by the mix of electronic and acoustic sounds from instruments ranging from state-of-art to ancient and arcane, and which take things even further into the ether to create a honey-dewed dreamscape that nevertheless retains its strength of character and focus to create one of the most hauntingly lovely discoveries of this or any other century thus far.

For those quick off the mark, Three Beams is a limited edition three-track accompaniment of extended remixes and reinterpretations by Potter, Begg and William Basinki, who serve up a sepulchrally-inclined trilogy of glow-in-the-dark ambient soundscapes. With the second punctuated by multi-tracked voices overlaying the slow-burning melodrama, the effect is as other-worldly as the dissonant chorale unleashed on the Les Mysteres Voix des Bulgares series of records released, again on 4AD, in the late 1980s. As with its mother album, this bonus disc can't help but leave you nape-hair rigid as you languish in all its ornate finery.