Words by Grey Malkin
Described by Stewart Lee as ‘vast chalk hills of sound’, the Brighton-based Oddfellow’s Casino have, in their own words, ‘quietly been releasing albums since 2002’, and have since amassed a cornucopia of electronically hued psychedelic folk. The ensemble’s central figure – songwriter, author and broadcaster David Bramwell – has been described as ‘an English Sufjan Stevens’ and is also known for his book (and award winning broadcast) The Haunted Moustache. Following on from the pleasingly prolific period of 2020/21 which saw three albums released in quick succession to mark the band’s 20th anniversary, Prince of the Starry Wheel emerges blinking into the cold light of a post-pandemic world where reality often appears stranger than fiction; possibly an ideal landscape for the return of Oddfellow’s Casino. Their ninth album proper, and named after a William Blake quote about Isaac Newton, Prince of the Starry Wheel continues their lineage of gorgeously orchestrated and eccentric English psych and, for such a visually descriptive band, appropriately takes several literary and influences as starting or jumping off points. These include the works of Ray Bradbury as well as Nick Hayes‘ The Book of Trespass, a recent treatise on the erosion of free rights of way and land reform (Hayes voice also features on the album). Described as ‘an album of earth, pathways, marching feet, burials and the passing of time’ this is a piece of work to stir, awaken and enlighten; there are several instances or moments of dramatic tension and emotive highs here that most acts would give their left arm to evoke.
The album opens with recent single ‘Trespass’, a soft focused fairground swirl of shimmering guitars, analogue bleeps and Bramwell’s distinctive, warm vocals. Exquisitely layered with detailed synths, distant voices and framed by a quietly insistent drumbeat, it is at once heart-breaking and uplifting – a duality that Oddfellow’s are well versed in. ‘Ameland’ follows, a beautifully melancholic slice of wistfulness that is suggestive of Broadcast merged with The Left Banke or the 60’s Nirvana, a psych-hued chamber pop gem replete with and punctuated by both a brass section and Hammond organ. ‘Last Orders at the Shoulder of Mutton’ is an album highlight, a dizzying electronic torch song that reaches cinematic levels of dark drama, orchestral strings and radiophonic synths combining to heartrending effect, like Scott Walker let loose on some vintage Moogs. The 12-minute ‘Beware My Love the Autumn People’ references Ray Bradbury’s chilling ‘Something This Way Comes’ in epic fashion, starting from a winding, snakelike keyboard motif to an ever-building psychedelic prog masterpiece, with accompanying mellotron flutes, pulsing bass synths and motorik drums elevating the song into cosmiche territory. Effortlessly ambitious and calmly thrilling, this track perhaps best exemplifies Oddfellow’s unique and pleasingly idiosyncratic vision; they follow their own muse and path, quite outside the vagrancies of fashion or convention, to create something that is genuinely a joy to hear and experience.
Next, a cover of Melanie’s ‘Summer Weaving’ adds cascading harp and plaintive strings to tear stained harmonies and offers a hazy moment of reflection that would not be out of place on one of Bob Stanley’s baroque pop compilations, whilst ‘Emily’ is a perfect three minutes of off kilter and unsettling yet hugely melodic and catchy paisley pop genius. Album closer ‘The Quiet Man and his Dutch Wife’ enters on tremeloed guitar and a late night, noirish backdrop of sound, growing in intensity amongst towering and spiralling synths, drums and Bramwell’s emotive storytelling. Doomed yet defiant, the song reached its ten-minute crescendo in bursts of organ, electronics, fuzz guitar and the apocalyptic line ‘we all wake up at the end of the world’. A fitting finale to an album that is essentially a storybook of songs, filled with tales of fated romance, strange encounters and unusual journeys.
A triumph then, though given their consistent level of high-quality releases possibly business as usual for Oddfelllow’s Casino. Each song is a mini symphony of sorts and the effect as a whole is breathtaking. The Starry Wheel continues its journey through the night sky; this is the perfect soundtrack with which to accompany it.
Prince of the Starry Wheel is out now and available on download and CD (beautifully adorned with artwork by Stewart Armstrong, whose credits also include the sleeve art to Oddfellow’s Casino albums Raven’s Empire and The Water Between Us.
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