Album review: Justin Hopper and Sharron Kraus – Swift Wings

Words by Grey Malkin

Sharron Kraus is well established as one of the UK’s most fascinating and endlessly creative psych folk artists, from her solo work to that with Meg Baird and Helena Espvall of Espers, as Rusalnaia with Ex Reverie’s Gillian Chadwick, and with Tara Burke (Fursaxa) as Tau Emerald. She also recently published a children’s book, Hares in The Moonlight, that is especially reminiscent of the work of Alan Garner, delving into both myth and folklore. Steeped in traditional English and Appalachian folk as well as in a more modern dark, acidic approach, Kraus is a cornerstone of the current psych and alterative folk scenes. Collaborator Justin Hopper is a writer of ‘landscape, memory and myth’ and is the author of the excellent and highly recommended The Old Weird Albion, an exploration of the wyrder and unseen aspects of his adopted South England homelands. Together they released 2019’s acclaimed and psychogeographical Chanctonbury Rings, with spoken word narration by Hopper and shadowy electronica and haunting folk by Kraus, along with Ghost Box’s Belbury Poly. Now reconvened, their second release, Swift Wings, takes inspiration from the poetry of Victor Neuburg (or ‘Vickybird’, as he was known to friends), who managed in his lifetime to both discover Dylan Thomas and be turned ‘into a camel’ by Aleister Crowley. Taken from his work Swift Wings: Songs in Sussex, these pieces are Neuburg’s paeans to his locality set to delicate and sensitive backing by Kraus, which offer a magic and sense of landscape or place all of their own. With Hopper’s narrations framed by Kraus’s intricate and evocative compositions, these songs are both transportive and a reminder of the connection we have with the environment that surrounds us, something that was of course heightened for many during the recent pandemic and lockdown.

The album begins with the glistening marimba notes of ‘Ivory’, Hopper and Kraus’s voices intermingling with a sense of joyful urgency as wistful strings and insistent cello propel us forward, to be accompanied by windswept woodwind in a tangible journey across the Spring soaked, golden landscape. An observation of nature, from the cuckoos encountered on route, to the daffodils and sun-soaked horizon, there is a sense of another time, another era to these songs or vignettes; a hazy nostalgia that evokes the polaroid flare of the 1970s as much as Neuburg’s Edwardian experiences. ‘Orchard Songs’ shimmering blend of electronica and folky recorder playing evokes an almost pagan or pre-Christian air in a glorious piece of nature worship, the brief sound of laughter from a wood spirit audible at its close. Next, ‘Coombes’ is a spectral travelogue of an abandoned village, which is reverently referred to as a ‘secret church’ (there are indications that Neuburg felt that nature or the natural landscape could well be described in a similar fashion too). Illuminating the old and other (non-human) life returning to the deserted houses and streets, this is both a ghost filled and haunted piece; with mankind gone, other creatures return to take their place in a preternatural and celebratory manner. Reminiscent of Arthur Machen’s writings (though a little less purple) and gently unsettling, this album highlight is a hushed gem where the midnight mood summoned is carefully and masterfully maintained. ‘Frenchlands’ follows, an interwoven choir of recorder and woodwind delicately framing Hopper’s evocative and quietly dramatic narration. Neuburg’s sense of wonder and immersion in his natural surroundings feels deeply captured here, the magic of the hills and the circle of nature ably transcribed and communicated in Kraus’s musical accompaniment. 

Discordant, analogue synth trills and arpeggios open ‘October’, a suitably autumnal and darkly tinged slice of psychogeographical description and investigation. The duo’s previous collaboration with Ghost Box Records and Belbury Poly makes the most sense here, as the spirits of Delia Derbyshire and the BBC Radiophonic Workshop are felt amongst the deceptively simple, yet eerily affecting, backing. ‘Cuckfield’ is a truly beautiful and melancholy sound-painting, woodwind and harmonised vocals sitting seamlessly alongside Neuburg’s evocation of nature in a chamber folk setting, whilst ‘Rock Pool’s glissandos and synth sweeps bring to mind faded and sepia hued 1960’s television nature documentaries for children. Again, the collaboration between Hopper’s voice and Kraus’s careful tapestry of accompanying vocals and minimalist (yet detailed) compositions seems to delve deeply into and evoke the listener’s own personal reactions and memories, in the manner of a welcome, internal dérive. The album ends with ‘Rottingdean’, a twilit and baroque summoning of the night that seems to bring the album as a whole to the point of the final lap of a journey, the end of a day’s walk amongst the hills, the cliffs and coast and through the landscape. Not unlike Dylan Thomas’s Under Milk Wood, there is a feeling of having glimpsed a snapshot or window into an individual’s life or day, which is now to bed and to rest.

This quiet jewel of an album inhabits its own particular piece of internal psychogeography, it has its own genius loci. There is a sense of place and time imbibed when listening to the work that is immediately  and deeply transportive, and which takes us out of the ‘here and now’ and into the other. It is a testament to the work of both Hopper and Kraus that this album is so spellbinding, so captivating, as well as to the simple beauty of Neuburg’s poetry.

Swift Wings is released on the 16th May on both download and CD formats at www.sharronkraus.bandcamp.com, this is a wander through the landscape you will wish to take time and time again.

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