Album: Robin Allender – Underground River

Released back in December last year, Underground River sees a return to folk-inspired sounds after a fair few years of intriguing ambient experimentation. These beautiful, quiet songs are built in subtle layers with a craftsman’s meticulous eye for detail. The musicianship is magnificent throughout, as would be expected from someone of Robin Allender’s technical prowess, but this is beautiful songwriting too- songs weaving their paths effortlessly with careful production adornments and subtle sounds enriching everything. Taking finger-picking, Jansch-inspired folk in new directions with surprising sonic palettes and new age hypnotics, it’s simply sublime stuff.

Often experimenting with immersive instrumentals, there are also a slew of carefully crafted lyric pieces too, his double-tracked vocals seeking emotive lines within the mass of swirling strings that hum with relentless dexterity. There’s something dreamy about the atmospheres created, the owl hooting at one point,  adding further nocturnal emphasis to these drink-riddled narratives. I love that the “For fucks’ sakes” in the accidental caesura is still included. Details always matter. Imperfections are important. 

City of Dreadful Night is rich in tremulous, echoing guitars that feel like they could prolong indefinitely, their bass-heavy reverberance adding yet further to these song’s twilight sentiments. I do love bird song, and its occasional arrival on the album often feels full of hope, despite the mournful atmospheres that pervade elsewhere.  The panning of the various careful guitar lines makes for something special when listening to these beautiful songs through headphones – as if my brain is gathering split images into an unfractured new entity. The imagery and minutiae is English to the core and there is a wistfulness to these specific signposts that matches the gentle quietude of the music. That mournful wail of wavering guitar at The Inner Remote’s ending, complete with that rain-heavy ambience adds a sense of wider horizons beyond the drink-splattered and provincial. 

Ghosts and Journeys sounds like the feeling of sitting in a late-night, crowded train station that’s gradually emptying, watching as the minutes tick by and the booze ceases to muster a firm grip. It’s unsettling and brilliant. There are times when the songs are reminiscent of a very British cousin of early Elliott Smith but these dalliances with field recordings and simple sampling feels quite different, as heard in the lyrically trance-like A Second in the Pattern. The additional vocals of Lexie Jennings on Unknowable North summon a transcendent choral quality; I am reminded – perhaps unsurprisingly- of the beautiful early recordings of Gravenhurst at times and even the nostalgic pull of the Angel and the Soldier Boy soundtrack in its 80s-echoing massed vocalisations. Throwing an Edvard Grieg cover could feel like a studied affectation but like the rest of this lovely album, it’s a delight – meditative, stately and full of quavering melodrama. Erstwhile experiments in slow-form ambient compositions have provided a range of ethereal subtleties that give these acoustic experiments depth and intrigue.  Canticle though, feels suddenly slightly terrifying after all this mesmeric beauty- dizzying and faintly nightmarish, a room spinning melody on the point of breaking and ultimately dissolving. The guitars on Swirls Before Pines vibrate with four-track cassette undulations, the melody painting surreal picture fragments captured from “the jagged edge of a migraine aura…”  

Melksham Gothic has a more collar-grabbing bass and drum waltz that powers everything along and builds a strange potency around the booze-addled narratives. It’s also possibly the only titular reference to Melksham in popular song- which I enjoyed a great deal. Underground River’s final track (sharing the same name as the album itself) is full of odd warbling keys and shoegaze-inspired, wall of sound production. It feels strangely subterranean in its way and marks an unsettling conclusion to this beautiful album, a curious, half-formed acoustic experiment arriving at its very end only to be decisively and abruptly cut. It makes the whole album feel like a singular, captured moment with unknown lost sounds since dissolved to time. 

“Oh take me down, underground river,
into the shadows…”

And there are shadows that spread across these songs but there is also light to bathe in too. Underground River is a glorious thing to become acquainted with, shadows and all.

Written by M.A Welsh (Misophone)