Review: Astralingua – Safe Passage

Ten years may be a long time to wait between debut and follow up, but the launch of the album Safe Passage earlier this month as the second release by space-folk duo, Astralingua, is a collection of thoughtfully crafted songs. Comprising vocalist Anne Rose Thompson and composer/vocalist Joseph Andrew Thompson, their first EP, Contact, came out in 2008; one reason it has taken them so long to release Safe Passage is because parts of it have been recorded in the Mojave Desert, others in a cabin in the Sierra Nevada mountains. The duo, based in Denver, Colorado, are joined on this album by various musicians to provide string, woodwind and mandolin accompaniment and the overall effect is entrancing. Joseph Thompson has described their style as “spacey” – in the colloquial sense, but also referring to both the sensation of open space that they hope to inspire with their tracks, as well as the musical sense of slower tempos and long echoes. This creates a series of frequently haunting, always beautiful songs, which first came to my attention because of the their first single from the album, an adaptation of William Blake’s “A Poison Tree”.

The first track on the album, “Plunge”, is the most upbeat of the songs included here, a beautiful start to the album with Joseph and Anne accompanied by a string octet with sections that echo The Beatles’ “Eleanor Rigby”. It is a particularly rousing start to Safe Passage and is intended as a more stirring introduction to the tracks that follow. The tone changes immediately with the following track, “Visitor”, a more minimalist and much slower piece that begins with solo guitar and delicate vocal harmonies before other instruments slowly join in. The lyrics, including the haunting opening line, “Come with me my weary child, cold and all alone”, draw on various poetic references such as W. B. Yeats’s “The Stolen Child” and Geothe’s “Erlkönig”; the whole song is ambiguous as to whether the child has ascended into heaven or has died, and this melancholy theme continues throughout the rest of the album.

“Sweet Dreams” continues the pensive reflections introduced by “Visitor”, with the subtle Travis-style guitar accompanied by mournful guitar and, as with every track on Safe Passage, the harmony of Joseph and Anne Thompson’s voice is frequently breathtaking. “The Nimble Men”, the shortest piece on the album, is presented as a chaos of sound that breaks the softer themes of “Sweet Dreams” and “Space Blues”, one of my particular favourites: while dealing with the experience of travelling through physical and interior space, it demonstrates the ambition of Astralingua’s music, seeking to offer a musical meditation on awareness and experience. “Phantoms”, while also following the slow tempo of the majority of the album, strikes a very different, more forceful tone as the confident, minimalist piano solo is interrupted by mournful cello and then disturbed, cackling voices; with “NSA” – a reference to “No Strings Attached” – these three pieces can be seen as representing the pivot of the album, a meditation on loneliness that lead us to the single that was the initial inspiration for this review.

“A Poison Tree”, which was released at the end of 2018, is a superb interpretation of Blake’s Song of Experience. The simplicity of the guitar, mandolin and violin accompaniment create a sound that has – fittingly for this space folk duo – been described as celestial. It is an extremely original interpretation, with Joseph Thompson having said in interviews that he has wished to bring out the playfulness of Blake’s poetry. I would remark that this would seem a very unusual interpretation for such a poem that is usually seen as a darker meditation on themes of revenge, but – in a very different style – it can be seen also as a motivating factor in one other adaptation, the Britpop bounce of Blur’s Magpie, which was the B-side to Blur’s 1994 single, “Girls and Boys”. For me, when listening to the song it demonstrates more a sense of wistfulness, perhaps, that anger should lead to destruction: certainly it ranks as one of the very best popular interpretations of Blake’s poem.

The adaptation of Blake is followed by three very different tracks that are, however, linked by a slower tempo. “The Fallen” is, like “NSA” and “Space Blues”, one of the longer and more ambitious tracks on the album. It also includes a number of literary and folk references, such as to “The Unfortunate Rake” and “The Cowboy’s Lament” (which later influenced the Scottish song, “Willie McBride”) as well as echoes of Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven” in the final word, “Nevermore”. “Passage to Albion”, which follows, is one of the most beautiful pieces on an album that brims with a range of sweet harmonies, while the final track on Safe Passage, “The Troubled Road”, is a much longer and somewhat darker piece: a narrative song, it follows the singer as he travels along the road that leads to the Styx, this lost Orpheus apparently unaware that he has died and is now entering Hades.

The space folk sound that Astralingua evoke on Safe Passage is entirely their own, but has echoes for me of other artists who sometimes fall into this category, particularly those who explore the more melancholy aspects of the genre, such as Fever Ray in “If I Had a Heart”, Grimm Grimm’s “Hazy Eyes Maybe” and the superb “Dead Queen” by Espers. You can listen to the album via streaming services such as Spotify and Apple Music, or order the album from Astralingua’s Bandcamp page. It is delicate, melancholy and, with its tribute to Blake’s “A Poison Tree”, a completely original setting of one of the Romantic artist’s most famous poems.

Safe Passage, released March 8, 2019, and available as CD and digital download from astralingua.bandcamp.com.

 

Astralingua: A Poison Tree

Friday 6 December saw the release of a new musical adaptation of William Blake’s song of experience, “A Poison Tree”, by the space-folk duo Astralingua, comprising Joseph Andrew Thompson and Anne Rose Thompson. Based in Denver, Colorado, their music features mandolins, cello and ghostly harmonies in a mixture of classical, folk and psychedelic sounds. The track, which you can hear below (and see the accompanying video), is from their forthcoming album, Safe Passage, due out in March 2019.

Here they tell Zoamorphosis some of the ways in which Blake has influenced them and their music.

Joseph:

I’ve been interested in Blake’s work since I was about 16 years old. A friend lent me a copy of Songs of Innocence and Experience and it amazed me. At first glance, it reminded me of the illustrated rhyme and story books I’d read as a child, which endeared it to me. It then became quickly apparent how rich it was in poetry, metaphor, craft, and vision. I bought a pocket copy by Penguin books and carried it around with me for quite some time. I would also go to the local bookstore and pore through whatever Blake collections they had, trying to find the best prints of his artwork.

His artwork was strange, anachronistic, and singular. I saw so many different genres of modern-day art reflected in his works from 200 years earlier – fantasy paintings, storybook illustrations, comic books, and animation. Blake exaggerated proportions, movement, and faces to create effects that I saw in all sorts of pop culture’s artwork. Figures sometimes seemed detached from their surroundings (Nebuchadnezzar), or as if leaping from the canvas. In many, there were layers upon layers of images, blended together like psychedelic paintings. Those were just my first impressions – the exciting things that grabbed my adolescent attention. As time went on, and I came to better understand and appreciate the fine arts, I realized what a master painter Blake was, how capable and detailed, and began to admire him even more.

They say Blake was considered “mad” in his time. I must be “mad” too, as I speak his language and he speaks mine. I imagine I like Blake for the same reason that a lot of artists do. His works weren’t popular in his age but it did not deter him. He didn’t change his style to suit the day. He painted and wrote his truth and vision. Because of that, there’s such pureness and honesty in his creations. His paintings and prints are filled with excitement, passion, and exuberance, and one senses in them the desire to communicate. When looking at his illustrations or reading his poems, you feel Blake’s earnestness. And when you take all this together, you get a sense of his likely isolation and loneliness, his reaching out for someone with whom to connect. In the end, you take his work personally, even though he’s communicating Universal Truths. Plus, his poetry makes you smile.

Rhymed and metered poetry takes work. You have to be more selective with what you say. No word or line can be wasted and you have fewer words from which to choose. A lot of poets have great command of rhyme, but their poetry is lacking. Other poets have beautiful ways of describing unique insights, but all without rhyme. Blake was a master of both. He was so joyfully playful. In his craft, more than just rhyming, he uses alliteration, plays with syntax, mixes and matches lines and schemes. There is such wealth offered to the reader.

Anne:

One thing that stands out to me about Blake, especially in his artwork, is how pure and defined his subjects are, both in emotion and physique. Looking at anyone he depicts, you see beauty, grace, grief, horror, shame, pity, strength, longing, and weakness all expressed – whatever characteristic it is, it is abundantly clear and undeniable.It makes his works so striking and evocative, and I think that’s often missing in modern art, music and media. Our culture now seems to embrace a nebulous, almost non-committal attitude, and characters are often aloof, vague, and undefined. Much the same with our emotions, where there is a prevalence of numbness, disaffection, and distraction. We’re overstimulated to the point of boredom. Maybe that’s why people fall for Blake the way they do when they discover him finally – they see the human experience expressed with such richness and in such volume, much louder and stronger than we are encouraged to experience it. Everything is full of passion and energy. He reminds us of our human capacity for real feeling.

 

“A Poison Tree” is available on Bandcamp, with Safe Passage also available for pre-order.

You can also see Astralingua’s video using Blake’s art on YouTube.