A collaborative output from someone primarily known as a singer-songwriter and someone known primarily as a painter/visual artist will probably raise some red flags among the musically snobbish (including the guy writing this review). Prior to listening to the debut album by Blew the Veils, I was slightly wary of potentially indulging some unlistenable vanity project designed to sell tickets to an art show.
Thankfully, the creative meeting of Vivien McDermid and Icelandic songsmith Benedikt H. Hermannsson has resulted in one of the most emotionally varied and emotionally engaging records to have landed in our collective inbox.
Edinburgh-based McDermid is known as a songwriter as well as an artist, so perhaps my intro and pre-exposure attitude are slightly unfair to her. Hermannsson’s band Benni Hemm Hemm have produced ten albums and toured extensively outside of their native Iceland, so neither is approaching this as some sort of musical rookie, but the result is a truly gorgeous accomplishment spanning a plethora of emotive vibes.
The opener and lead track from the preceding EP, ‘Petrol Soft Breath’, is a blend of densely multi-tracked vocals and spookily echoing piano parts. The percussion doesn’t start until the two-minute mark but, when it does arrive, it gently drives the track forward in a laconic, swaying manner. Considering most of the songs on Lampwork clock in at under three minutes, the five-minute run-time of ‘Petrol Soft Breath’ gives it a relatively epic feel.
In contrast, ‘Blush Master’ has a much more direct mix and has the plonking storytelling feel of a Kinks song. The orchestration is worth mentioning here as various musical elements dance around the main vocal melody like the decorative streamers attached to an ornate float at some remote local gala day.
Revolving around a skipping drumbeat and spiralling verses, ‘Burnt Milk’ is an unabashed bopper with one of those choruses that makes you glad every time it comes around.
Sometimes the overlapping vocals sound like they’re directly fighting each other, in a manner more akin to hyperactive kittens than
‘Ray Guns’ manages to transform itself from downbeat, murky verses into relatively soaring, lovesick chorus renditions with plenty of thick strings padding the sound out. There might be a cello in there but it’s hard to tell, as it’s either using the higher strings or it’s another stringed instrument mimicking the deep drone of a cello.
‘Big Deal’ is a very direct message to someone giving contradictory visions of devotion. ‘The rules are simple / you can do what you want’ sings Hermannsson in a manner that suggests a love completely absent of the sort of dominating language male-sung love songs were plagued with last century.
The most sonically unsettling song on the album is ‘Fights in the Lot’. The staccato piano stabs are at odds with the flowing vocals that stretch over the top of it before the whole vocal line is re-sung at a slightly different time signature.
Featuring renowned multi-instrumentalist Lorna Gilfedder, ‘Pearl Night’ deploys something that sounds like a theremin to give a decidedly dreamy bedding, within which Hermannsson’s distinctive timbre weaves images of skyward wishes and the building orchestration of rich strings makes the entire track sound like it was recorded on the edge of the known world.
‘Butterflylight’ might be my favourite song on the record. ‘You can tear me into strips / you can chop me into bits / if you like / if you like’ is a devastating set of lines exposing an earnest yearning. The backing vocals as the song progresses would be worthy of a place on Pet Sounds.
With a slightly more rock-friendly backing, ‘Cool Gang’ also harks back to a hazy view of the late sixties. Hypnotic and reservedly groovy, it’s probably the best candidate for a future single release.
Closer ‘Dark Green Night’ utilises a much higher tempo than everything else on the record. As a sign-off, it actually works really well, although I don’t think anyone would complain if it switched places in the track-listing and was an opening track. Some of the instrumentation is quite hard to pin down, with a persistent sound in the mix that could be a highly pitched organ or a sample of someone whistling.
Lampwork is a warm mesh of influences. There are obvious lashings of folky warmth and the mostly baritone vocals lend more than a hint of Tindersticks’ later records. Lyrically, there’s a blend of the surreal and the intimate which knits together nicely with McDermid’s textile-focused approach to painting – various fabrics and objects being expertly blended with the traditional paint creating something all the more unique for its integrated approach. If you can get your hands on the vinyl version, which includes the limited-edition book of artworks by Vivien, you’ll have something both tactile and ear-caressing that you’ll revisit well into your old age.
Lampwork is out 4th November via Blackford Hill