‘Encompass’ is the début album from dark, otherworldly duo, Hamsas XIII; a project combining the talents of Robyn Bright and Rich Witherspoon. The album is to be released on 22 April 2015, with pre-orders, sneak preview downloads and videos coming soon. From start to end, ‘Encompass’ aptly traces an important personal and musical journey for the pair, which began a little over two years ago. Bright described it to me as “a journey out of stasis, or coming to terms with its necessity, as well”. While I’m loath to use the term ‘concept album’, there are some records where there’s a sense of travelling through a sequence of musical and conceptual events, with a seemingly defined beginning, middle and end; and ‘Encompass’ is one of those albums.
Still a relatively new project, Hamsas XIII nevertheless boasts a background and pedigree of some distinction. Since 2005, Robyn Bright has been the lead songstress with Canadian post-shoegaze outfit Cockatoo; a band combining the rawness and sweeping urgency of post-punk with the wistful melodic airs of shoegaze and dreampop. Rich W. has also served as a member of Cockatoo, but will undoubtedly be better known to gothic rock aficionados as long-time guitarist and co-founder of The Wake, since their formation in Columbus, Ohio back in 1986. A longer biography of The Wake (also by the present writer) can be found here.
Influential UK post-punk guitarist David ‘Wolfie’ Wolfenden of Red Lorry Yellow Lorry fame (whose further credits include Expelaires, The Mission and Rose of Avalanche) also joins the duo as a guest performer on selected tracks. In fact, it was hearing Wolfie and Witherspoon’s early instrumental demos of what would later become ‘Unbound’ and ‘Seirenes’ in December 2012, which had ultimately secured Robyn Bright’s involvement in the project.
“[Unbound] was the song that made me want to be in this. I always get asked to sing [for other projects], but that song resonated. So I had to learn how to record and take part in it!”
Rich Witherspoon also tells me a story behind the creation of ‘Unbound’ marking the beginning of the collaboration with Bright. Like all good band stories, Witherspoon’s version of events takes place in a toilet stall, and I’m not permitted to reprint it.
While both Hamsas XIII and Bright’s other band Cockatoo have clearly been influenced by what we now know as ethereal, dreampop, shoegaze or darkwave, it would be both lazy and misleading to compare her vocal sound to the more recognisable voices in those fields. At times, however (cue ‘Unbound’, or ‘Slow Ache’), I do hear strains of Deirdre Rutkowski; an oft’ overlooked contributor to some of the most beautiful performances captured on This Mortal Coil’s ‘Filigree and Shadow’ and ‘Blood’ albums. In Robyn’s vocals I’m sometimes reminded of Katie Wood, from little-known New Zealand project Melody Fallen; Megan from fellow Canadian post-punk/goth outfit Dekoder; Siouxsie’s early forays into new-wave pop melodicism (think ‘Paradise Place’); there are even very occasional hints of a young Annie Lennox.
There’s also an almost androgynous quality to Bright’s voice; evocative at times of Gordon Sharp’s beautifully fragile guest vocal work with Cocteau Twins or This Mortal Coil (more-so than the harrowing, emotional assaults deployed by Sharp’s primary outlet, Cindytalk). Elsewhere, as with ‘Protection’, or some of her previous band’s more rock-driven songs, Bright could be a female counterpart to Gene Loves Jezebel’s Jay Aston, or a less abrasive reincarnation of the late Chrissy Amphlett, of Divinyls fame.
During the mid-late ‘80s, Witherspoon and his comrades in The Wake had spearheaded the first wave of American goth-rock bands in the post-Sisters mould, as distinct from the Californian deathrock groups who had dominated the US scene up to that point. While frontman Troy Payne’s uncanny vocal similarity to Andrew Eldritch drew some harsh criticism of The Wake as Sisters clones, Witherspoon’s guitar style has always openly displayed the influence of 4AD luminaries like Cocteau Twins or Modern English, alongside iconic post-punk guitarists John Ashton of The Psychedelic Furs, or indeed, Wolfie from the Lorries. Witherspoon’s 4AD influences were most overtly manifest with The Wake’s cover of ‘16 Days’ by Modern English (also recorded by This Mortal Coil), and their later collaborations with John Fryer; co-founder of 4AD flagships This Mortal Coil and The Hope Blister, and (post-4AD), the fantastic new project Muricidae with vocalist Louise Fraser.
Within Hamsas XIII, Witherspoon takes the opportunity to explore the ‘ethereal’ colour palette in even more vivid detail. Unlike later permutations of that sound, however, the project skilfully avoids many of the treacle-drenched clichés of the Cocteaus’ latter-day dreampop, or the lush, giddy hedonism of densely over-produced shoegazers that followed. As a multi-instrumentalist handling many of the bass, guitars, programming and percussion on the album, Witherspoon’s approach is refreshingly ascetic; apparently drawing from a minimalist, abstract ‘art-rock’ sound characteristic of 4AD artists from the early-mid 1980s. Importantly, it’s this comparatively subtle and austere approach, which creates the requisite space into which the more fragile components of the duo’s sound are able to take seed.
If Witherspoon can be attributed with mining the ethereal, coldwave, art-rock and goth landscapes, then Robyn Bright’s musical influences are often more keenly heard in the ambient, downtempo, trip-hop, pseudo-Eastern and psychedelic elements of ‘Encompass’. Most notably, ‘Tigers’, ‘Good Night Kiss’, ‘March Masque’ and ‘Eclipse’ all began life as Bright compositions, written and demoed on guitar and drums, with the arrangements fleshed out further in collaboration. As such, Hamsas XIII mustn’t be misconstrued as one of those composer-producer-instrumentalist-led recording projects with some incidental pretty poppet on vocals. While Witherspoon has undoubtedly assumed the role of lead instrumentalist and musical director, occasionally augmented by Wolfenden’s understated guitar textures, Bright’s own prior background is that of an accomplished songwriter, bandleader and guitarist, to whom Witherspoon has also played the ‘sideman’ role within Cockatoo. Within Hamsas XIII, Bright is every inch a creative equal, collaborator and full partner in the project.
Both Witherspoon and Bright remark on a new found level of creative freedom expressed through Hamsas XIII; both members relishing the opportunity to disrupt the narratives prescribed for them within the confines of more conventional songwriting formats. The duo’s liberated, spontaneous and intuitive approach to the creative process is thus a striking and definitive element of the album overall – most songs were written and recorded in one night apiece, meaning that ‘Encompass’ is heavy on improvisation. ‘Congratulations’, Robyn explains, was the only song included where she turned to previously written lyrics from her journal; the remainder having been composed ‘on the spot’, in the midst of recording sessions:
“I would just get the track at maybe 7pm, listen for an hour on repeat and then write while I listened, then record [vocals] by 9pm-ish, and send it back to [Rich].”
More painstaking attention to detail has instead been applied in post-production (mixing, editing, mastering, etc), meaning that their song-craft enjoys the benefits of both complete creative abandon, coupled with meticulous consideration to the end result. It’s an approach uncannily like that of New Zealand trio восстание, and with strikingly similar results.
Fittingly, ‘Encompass’ opens with ‘Unbound’. The icy, brittle sound of weirdly syncopated electronic drums initiate proceedings, followed by washes of Wolfenden’s atmospheric, almost synth-pad-like guitars, and Rich W’s droning but melodic bass. Played as a lead instrument, the bass is so fluid as to make an otherwise irregular, somewhat unnatural rhythm (in alternating bars of 8/4, and 10/4) somehow flow seamlessly. The overall sound displays the influence of early Cocteaus, the first This Mortal Coil album, or The Cure from the same early-mid ‘80s period, whereas it could just as easily appeal to younger fans of modern coldwave along the lines of Winter Severity Index, Saigon Blue Rain or She Past Away. ‘Unbound’ has been a favourite since I first heard earlier demo recordings in circulation on YouTube, and for me, it remains one of the most immediate songs on the album.
‘Tigers’ finds itself somewhere between the deep ‘world music’ groove and subsonic bass response of Massive Attack’s ‘Wandering’, the East-meets-West multicultural milieu of Dead Can Dance, and the lush, cinematic exoticism of Page & Plant’s ‘Unledded’. It’s perhaps the best example of Bright’s fusion of downtempo, psychedelic and Eastern influences, which become a recurrent motif throughout the album, adding to its prevailing sense of scope.
The title track makes its way across similar terrain, but with the added dynamic and energy of deceptively ‘real’ sounding rock drums, pushing the track forward. The frenetic, rhythmic drone of both twelve-string guitar and twelve-string bass conspire to give the illusion of bowed instruments, shimmering like heatwaves on the horizon, while Bright’s plaintive desert wail manages to simultaneously take on an earthy, grounding quality.
The grinding, gothasfuck bassline and spacious drum-programming of ‘Protection’ make it the sonic equivalent of a gloomy sister to ‘Unbound’. The dirge-like qualities coupled with hints of Middle Eastern instrumentation remind me in places of The Cure and The Banshees’ experiments with faux-Arabic influences, with the added benefit of contemporary production values. Meanwhile, Mr. Wolfenden reappears to contribute an arpeggiated guitar pattern so delicate and subtle you’d hardly know it was there.
The reverb-drenched guitars and bass of ‘Congratulations’ recall the amniotic sound of early Cocteau Twins or classic Mephisto Walz, coupled with the gothabilly riffing of mid ‘80s Nephilim, and the bleak, grey, urban drone of Red Lorry Yellow Lorry or Every New Dead Ghost. In contrast, vocals and drums cut through with clarity and precision. Robyn’s explanation for the lyrics having been culled from an earlier song-journal entry, meanwhile, would seem to account for their comparatively ‘structured’ feel. The song’s vocal hooks, rhythmic guitars and quick tempo make it another instant standout.
The big ‘live’ sounding rock drums (a-la ‘When the Levy Breaks’) of ‘March Masque’ combine with a slow, churning guitar riff, to provide the backdrop for abstract, wailing vocals. Like ‘Unbound’, as a song it’s one whose key melodic motifs are easy to warm to, quickly becoming memorable, but it also epitomises in many ways the project’s abstract, free-form approach to composition.
‘Seirenes’ ventures a little further into ambient-experimental territory, while also bringing a welcome shift in dynamic from the comparatively hypnotic atmospheres preceding it. By contrast, ‘Seirenes’ is dark and unsettling, opening with jarringly percussive noise guitars courtesy of Wolfie, giving way to an almost discordant, shimmering guitar pattern played by Rich W., and vocals that range from brooding disquiet to impassioned pleading. True to its namesake, the song is every bit as alluring as it is foreboding; drifting past like the apparition of a ghost ship, it leaves behind it a lingering, aching sense of having been first ensnared and in turn set adrift by some cruel enchantress.
‘Slow Ache’ returns to the land of slow and heavy stadium-sized drums; megalithic structures in silhouette, through a thick, swirling fog of deep, groaning layers of guitars and rumbling synth-like twelve-string bass frequencies. Both vocally and musically, ‘Slow Ache’ reaches some of the most uplifting and anthemic heights on the album; has some of the best melodic vocal hooks, and is another personal favourite.
The pace quickens for ‘Delight’ with skittish drums, a solemn, driving bass, and flashes of guitar buried in the mix, like the glint of a knife’s edge. There’s an interesting interplay between the lead and backing vocal arrangements; each part has been sung utilising different parts of Bright’s range, and both are given very different treatments, with one voice recorded through a megaphone.
‘Sacred Circuit’ has a fair bit of dynamic impact, but at number 13 in the tracklist, it doesn’t get a chance to make quite the impression that it should have. Placed alongside a fairly substantial volume of pieces of a similar mid-slow tempo and very fluid form, it can struggle to keep its head above a fairly nebulous ocean of sound. It’s therefore refreshing to hear more in the way of downtempo/trip-hop grooves in ‘Good Night Kiss’; another Bright initiative, while ‘Breeze’ occupies a musical space somewhere in between the first Dead Can Dance album, and an Ennio Morricone theme for a Sergio Leone film; comparable perhaps to David Thrussell and Pieter Bourke’s work together as Soma. Despite being a longer, instrumental piece (Bright adding incidental sounds), as the album closer, it hits the mark.
But that in itself is by no means a bad thing, and there is perhaps something more important at stake here; to sacrifice any one of these recordings from the final tracklist for the sake of instant gratification would have rendered ‘Encompass’ incomplete. And for those who do persist beyond the third or fourth listen, from beginning to end, the dividends are certainly worth waiting for.
‘Encompass’ will be available from music download sites from 22 April 2015. For news about pre-orders, sneak-peeks, downloads, videos and other promotions leading up to the release; follow Hamsas XIII on Facebook. ► by Michel.
Hamsas XIII – Encompass (2015)