I will be a Pilgrim
An album of folk/classical guitar tunes paired with kosmische-like vintage keys, giving a beautiful, celebratory and sometimes pastoral feel.
It follows a long line of like-minded and superb work by main man Craig Fortnam, taking in two earlier Arch Garrison albums, plus three under North Sea Radio Orchestra along with his wife Sharron and a cast of regular collaborators. Here Craig is joined by James Larcombe who is also part of NSRO, the William D Drake band and Stars of Battledress (of whom more later in the month).
‘The oldest road’ and the title track leap out on first listen, giving a sense of the ancient pathways running underneath our 21st century lives – the tunes are sturdy but they also bring a welcome level of whimsy missing from most modern discourse, not to mention modern pop music.
Sharron makes an appearance on the utterly lovely duet ‘O sweet tomorrow’, a brilliantly wrong-footing waltz rhythm with intertwining classical guitar lines, chimes and brushed hi-hats.
‘Other people’ follows and takes that thread of shifting time signatures, giving a hint of the avant garde in the service of hummable tunes.
Similarly, the beguiling ‘Six feet under yeah’ swings along on a synth bass pulse, reaching a distinctly prog-pop bridge – the arrangement is superbly inventive, synth and guitar lines swapping and overlapping to great effect, and you’re likely to be singing it to yourself all day long. It’s also folk music given a fresh and vibrant twist.
In fact it's hard to keep track of all the memorable tunes - 'Bubble' is another one, a circling bassline folding over itself while twinkling bells and meandering synth lines chime support.
Two gorgeous instrumentals act like chapter headings, ‘Vamp 1’ and Vamp 2’, with the modal Malian style of Ali Farka Touré, among others, a clear influence. In fact, on second listen it’s possible to trace that influence through the entire album. It seems Fortnam has forged a sound that could only be English, while drawing on a variety of global styles and traditions.
The result sounds completely natural and unforced, a music quietly ecstatic and transportative, and another minor masterpiece in the Fortnam body of work.
The Underground Heroes of Happiness
Arch Garrison is the acoustic vehicle of North Sea Radio Orchestra mainstays Craig Fortnam and James Larcombe. Their latest album I Will Be A Pilgrim sees songwriter and composer Fortnam examine his love for the countryside of southern England, aided by his trusty nylon string guitar and Larcombe’s piano and organ.
From the off it is apparent that Fortnam’s engagement with his chosen landscape –and with his chosen musical form – runs deeper than your average folky pastoralia. There are complex relationships at work on this otherwise simple collection of songs – most notably those between man, environment and the passing of time. Opener Where The Green Lane Runs, for example, makes reference to Captain Oates, hinting at hostility and the need for self-sacrifice in a seemingly hospitable world.
Exquisite and surprisingly complex guitar playing is always to the fore.Everything All is propelled along by a fleet-fingered motif that owes much to both classical Spanish and African musical traditions. Two linked instrumentals, Vamp 1 and Vamp 2, further emphasise the influence of African guitar music, and serve to remind us that ‘folk’ music, even a kind of folk music that is inextricably linked to a certain landscape or locality, can and should be an open and inclusive form.
But I Will Be A Pilgrim is not just about the guitar. The synths that chime with the birdsong at the end of The Oldest Road – a song about the ancient Ridgeway path – are anything but incongruous. Like much of the record it serves as a lesson that ancient landscapes exist alongside, rather than separate from, the technological advances of the modern world.
In terms of overall sound Arch Garrison veer close to a kind of baroque chamber-folk located somewhere between the late-60s Nick Drake/Donovan-inspired boom and the softer end of Robyn Hitchcock’s musical spectrum. But to their credit they never settle on one sonic idea for too long. The beginning of the title track has an almost progressive feel to it, and indeed much of the album has a kind of Canterbury prog atmosphere (minus the vast, ridiculous layers and twenty-minute songs of course), all the more so because Fortnam’s voice carries a passing resemblance to Robert Wyatt’s. But despite being hard to pin down I Will Be A Pilgrim has a pleasingly focussed reflexivity, summed up in songs like Other People, which begins with an impressive flourish of guitar before settling down into a meditation on passivity. It is a clever, understated delight.
'I Will Be A Pilgrim' is another example of English folk music's ability to update endlessly, folding fleet modernity into a timeless, ever-rejuvenating continuum.....In aligning post-war cultural memories with a cherished ideal of old Albion, I Will Be A Pilgrim is like an ancient, steep-sided country lane, tarmacked sometime in the 20th Century, and still allowing traffic today.