Album Review: Henki – Circle and Richard Dawson
The folksy oddball has joined forces with the merry men (well, more of a motley crew) of Circle, creating an epic series of anthemic tracks all about, hang on – plants?
Print Music Editor Harry Hawkins reviews Richard Dawson’s latest album Henki.
Richard Dawson should by now be a byword for some of the most idiosyncratic music in modern folk and rock, always taking risks musically without losing an emotionally evocative centre. Whether its some of the affecting stories told in his albums Peasant and 2020, or his work with Hen Ogledd, Richard is always a transportive artist. Melodies that sound like something a serf would hum in a Middle England fiefdom are illuminated with lyrics that can reflect on anything and everything – tales of the demise of unfortunate locals, documenting the feelings of a soldier going to war, a school trip gone awry. Richard’s choice to work with the metallic Finnish prog-rock outfit of Circle may appear at first glance to be a bad fit, but looking at any of his recent material you can see tunes like ‘Jogging’ and ‘Civil Servant’ which display his affinity for music that gets weird and heavy.
humanity in Dawson’s storytelling is heartfelt
Nevertheless, we begin with ‘Cooksonia’, the most folk-loric part of the record, with its rounds of acoustic thump and chants of ya-ho easing you in – but there’s something hiding in the bushes, Richard’s plainsong giving a sense of unease as he details the life and work of Australian biologist Isabel Cookson, a prominent palaeobotanist. The humanity in Dawson’s storytelling is heartfelt as he describes not the difficulty and sacrifice taken by Cookson to reach her position as a scientist, but also the passion and love for her research in poetic terms (“Dwelling at length inside the mad waltz/ Of spores on a gust of the mind’s hair”), even though, as is inevitable when working with ‘small things’ like plants and fungi, nothing lasts forever (“the fungal cultures we brought with us/Have started to degrade”). More songs about the lives of scientists, please!
‘Ivy’ switches from the scientific to the supernatural, gothic organs and guitars spire up as Dawson tells of a man in horror as his son is consumed by wreaths of the titular plant. However, the slow reveal of mythological figures makes it known that Dioynsus is behind it, just as he causes suffering to figures like Pentheus and King Midas. This shift is soundtracked fantastically with spiring and interlocking guitars, orchestral synth arpeggios and a droning rhythm section that sounds like The Cult.
The two sibilant tracks of ‘Silphium’ and ‘Silene’ may come as a slight dip to some, with the storytelling becoming a little more impressionistic and less direct than some of the other tracks. ‘Silene’ is a lull in the track list that can be a sweet respite with a motoric beat coloured with peacefully droning synths. Silphium’s first half is an energised hunk of melodic folk most reminiscent of the excellent ‘2020’, but the strange breakdown in the middle of the song overstays its welcome by quite a margin. It is the one moment where the prog rock tendency gets a little grating, reminding me of off kilter breakdowns found in bands like the Mars Volta. Especially when the rest of the song is so killer!
‘Methuselah’ starts out with some quirky vocal harmonies and a stilted Slint style groove, telling the true story of Donald Curey’s hapless mission to find the oldest tree on earth. This is cut short when he kills the tree attempting to get a cross section (what a cretin!), but this remarkable act of sad idiocy is cut short by the grooving second section – one of the most anthemic parts of the whole album, with Richard’s chants of “Don’t you see me, I’m on the edge”. I see this phrase as being words uttered by the life spirit of the world’s oldest tree after it dies, make of that what you will. The builds and dips in momentum here are electric and sound like a group of chariots racing.
More hooks arrive in the mournful yet driving Lily, with its refrain of ‘Black Lights, running in the distance’. Instrumentally there are many elements one could see as like the Cure, whether it’s the use of breaths and percussion, the repetitive beat and lower register Dawson chooses to use – it really creates a contrast for the chorus with its operatic falsetto.
Taking final stage, ‘Pitcher’ takes up some ELP or Yes style organ backing to a phantasmic and shouted intro (which is actually lifted from an old Circle song) – like some kind of vampiric Viking army. The Pete Gabriel Genesis style jam that follows (augmented with 80s synths, vocoded vocals and electronic drums – of course!) is a wonderful diversion to lead us out.
The whole effect of this botanical prog odyssey is one of wonderment, surprise and more than a few dashes of terror – Circle both add a gothic mood and a jam band style hecticness to the comfortably strange writing of Dawson. I for one am keen to see where both collaborators wish to continue, as even if they take a few risks and liberties that don’t 100% pan out, the sheer strength of every track more than makes up for it.
For fans of: Deerhoof, Squid, Black Midi, Krautrock in general, King Crimson and other classic prog (Genesis, Yes, ELP), The Cure and The Cult