Highlights from the album
Two versions of ‘The Age of Not Believing’ bookend the album, one a woozy, brass-laden instrumental, the other a splendidly stirring duet delivered by Emily Barker and Dom Coyote amid fluttering strings, a park bandstand brass band, glowing vibraphones and liminal electronic noises off, featuring Paddy Steer.
‘John Lackland’ is a pensive, forest-dark ballad, gravely, intimately delivered by its writer Adrian Crowley, against Dominic Murcott’s tolling vibraphone, Gill Sandell’s breathing, sentient accordion, ineffably cinematic waves of brass, written by noted film music composer/arranger Harry Escott (Michael Winterbottom, Steve McQueen).
Workshop clatter cedes to wonkily imperious waltz on ‘Toymaker’s Son’, written by Ted Barnes as a paean to his toy-making father’s workshop. Then there’s the delightfully half-glass-full Barnes composition ‘There’s Room Here’ (“about playing in boxes when I was a kid! Creating safe worlds to live in, sharing it with my brother and sister”, he reveals), wreathed in layers of brass, Kate Arney’s pellucid harp and the Puffin Voices choir (the ensemble’s bespoke vocal accompanists, comprising both trained and amateur singers, their contributions recorded at north London’s atmospheric Union Chapel, a sort of spiritual home to ANB).
Vocalist and Songwriter Stephen Coates (The Real Tuesday Weld) contributes a woozy waltz in Verdun and on contrast Piney Gir’s beautiful take on ‘Pure Imagination’ (originally found on the soundtrack to Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory), with its lavish arrangement, might be the closest the album gets to full-on Busby Berkeley/Hollywood dreaming. The touchingly wistful reading of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang classic ‘Hushabye Mountain’ features wonderfully ethereal accompaniments including profoundly aching strings and Ollie ‘Dollboy’ Cherer on what might be the most tender bowed saw part ever recorded.
‘Four Strong Walls’ finds Emily Barker in keening voice once more, wreathed in the sound of rain on a window, pulsing bass, mechanical strings and tubular bells struck with a large hammer. “It’s about a fear of the dark as a child”, Barker reveals. “I used to sometimes lie in my bed at night not able to sleep, paralysed by the thought of what might be under it: monsters and beasts lurking in the dark…”
Andrew Phillips’ miscellaneous interlude instrumentals deploy everything from viol and glockenspiel to Celtic harp, Moog and Dulcitone, a consistently intimate, multi-textured delight – like choice miniatures plucked from the soundtrack to a dream, or ambient music as imagined by Hans Christian Andersen.
The album, meticulously engineered and co-produced by Les Mommsen, with consistently mesmerising arrangements by Harry Escott, overseen by Ben Eshmade, is one that that, for all its stylistic serpentines, instrumental caprices, multiple authors and 50/50 division between originals and covers, casts an unswervingly poignant spell – a testament to the ensemble’s collective will and the vision of its dreamer-in-chief. As he says, “You need to be serious about magical things”.