Album review: Dark Leaves – Laid under leaf, under branches

Album artwork

Words by Grey Malkin

Dark Leaves, Cornwall’s Patrick Aston, first came to attention with 2018’s cinematic debut ‘Grey Stone in the Wood’, which was quickly followed by the intricately detailed gothic folk of the ‘Forest Flowing’ EP. Both showcased and demonstrated Aston’s innate ability in creating a deeply atmospheric and beautifully melancholic strain of psychedelia, hushed and permeated with shadows and a strong sense of the surrounding environment and of place. Now, with new long player ‘Laid under leaf, under branches’, Dark Leaves consolidate all that was special about their initial work and add yet further layers of intrigue, shade and depth to the finely wrought tapestries that these songs are woven from.

The album opens with the brief but beautiful instrumental ‘Mithra’, ably evoking the airs and sights of Aston’s native Cornwall, with its pensive acoustic guitars shrouded in sea mist and a coastal choral of keyboards. Previous single ‘The Edge of the Light’ follows, both a perfectly framed slice of autumnal melancholy and a graceful procession of acoustic finery, cloaked in swelling strings and eerie, bowed guitar. Here, special mention must go to Mari Randle’s evocative vocals, which offer and provide the ideal counterpoint to Aston’s intimate intonations. Indeed, if one was to choose an individual track that feels best representative of the quiet, self-contained magic of Dark Leaves, of their emotive force and gentle majesty, this could very possibly be the song. The album’s title track is next, Aston’s fingerpicking reverberating and shimmering as if across a vast silver sea, before subtle keyboard melodies weave and weft a strong sense of yearning, of time and memories lost. Gathering storm clouds and a hint of menace are conjured by growing waves and washes of accompanying keyboards, and a spiralling, edgy guitar interlude. ‘The Queen of Owls’ by turn adds layers of electronic woodwind to create a forest symphony, shrouded in dusk and Aston’s engaging and earthy tones. Again, there is a genuine sense of connection with the surrounding area suggested here, both with the local environment and with its nature; this album feels steeped in the land and sea. Aston’s hometown informs the songs, in the very tempo, mood and folklore of the pieces. For example, the instrumental ‘We Are Everywhere’ s beautifully adorned acoustic charms lead us on a rustic journey across Cornwall’s singular geography, one filled with secrets and an air of mystery, until haunting synths and woodwind enter like ghosts, lending the piece a spectral and otherworldly aspect that hints at the more supernatural elements of the landscape.

Next, ‘The King Tide’ begins with the sound of lapping waves against wood and timber, a distant and ancient sounding melody emerging and keening over the water. The steady beat of a hand drum invites us into a piece that quickly establishes itself as an album highlight, a delicate dreamscape of echoes; a folk tale of its own that layers and grows with intensity. Dark Leaves may be primarily acoustic, and there is a consistent gentle darkness to what they offer, yet there is also a brooding and tangible power to their work, something that gets under the skin and resonates long after the music has finished. ‘Kalibunker’ (which previously featured on the ‘Lost in Catland’ charity compilation for cat shelters) follows, a tribute to the local folklore and history that gave us the Cornish Rex cat. Here, Aston’s electric guitar features more predominately amongst the acoustic framework, slicing darkly through the unsettling and ominous keyboard orchestration, reminiscent of The Cure’s early work circa ‘Seventeen Seconds’ or ‘Faith’. Again, the filmic nature of Dark Leaves and their mastery of setting mood and atmosphere is amply demonstrated, this is music to listen to whilst out walking in a storm, on desolate beaches or rain torn cliffs. Next, ‘Fast Wears the Night’ is a midnight mass of a song with a sense of the sacred and of communion with nature, expertly garlanded with dark, dense sweeps of synth that hint at something hidden beyond, whilst the truly gorgeous ‘Birds of Passage’ is accentuated by chiming new wave guitars and more of Mari Randle’s crystalline vocals. The album ends on a high with ‘Anahita’, an alluring and short instrumental piece that once again is transportive in its mood, placing the listener gazing at the star filled night skies, the nearby woods thick with mystery.

With ‘Laid under leaf, under branches’, Dark Leaves have delivered their opus or masterpiece, a highly individual and evocative piece of work that radiates dark beauty and a strong, otherworldly magic. The quiet yet huge horizons and genius loci that are conjured here are testament to Aston’s careful and distinctive craftwork, where each song is sensitively orchestrated and decorated in a manner that enhances its emotional power and impact. This is an album for all seasons, for summer sunsets and for winter mists. It is a perfect companion for being a part of the inner landscape or geography too, filled as it is with a beautiful sadness; the songs are almost folk laments in their longing and their plaintive nature. An essential piece of work then – an album to commune with.

Available from darkleaves.bandcamp.com, with a forthcoming vinyl edition from Ramble Records.

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