‘Balgay Hill: Morning in Magnolia’, the latest album by Andrew Wasylyk, is out today on Clay Pipe Music. Alistair Fitchett reviews, finding deliciously brief episodes of transcendence, infused by sunlight and dew.
Landscapes are never settled. At some level we understand this, even as our perceptions of them are informed by freeze-framed moments in paintings, poetry, prose, photographs and our minds’ eyes. Our captured memories are simultaneously fixed in time and woven into the past and future through threads of documentation and imagination. Notions of permanence are eroded by history and interventions both human and natural, the hands of both sculpting energies through time and motion. Landscape envelopes and penetrates us even whilst distancing itself. Moments slip. Earth slides. Blossom falls and leaves kiss greens; words ineffective against the blisters of time.
Musicians and composers of course have also striven to capture the landscapes surrounding us, and if they are perhaps less given to recording the moments that settle on our retinas then they are certainly more suited to capturing that essence of time slipping through the cracks of contemplation. Perhaps too a better balm to those blisters. Of contemporary composers connecting with landscape through music, Andrew Wasylyk is certainly one of the most intriguing and accomplished. A trilogy of albums exploring aspects of the eastern Scottish realms he calls home include the marvellous The Paralian, which was nominated for the 2019 Scottish Album of the Year award. The other two instalments, Themes for Buildings and Spaces from 2017 and last year’s Fugitive Light and Themes of Consolation are hardly less impressive and immersive pieces that glitter and flow with jazzy ambience and earthy esoterica.
Some of that jazz-tinged coolness certainly drifts into Wasylyk’s most recent work, although I would suggest too that the gorgeous Balgay Hill: Morning In Magnolia album is also perhaps the warmest in tone of his records to date. Released by the reliably brilliant and highly collectable Clay Pipe Music label, Balgay Hill is an eloquent series of luminous morning meditations centred on Dundee’s 19th Century Balgay Park, a space where Wasylyk found solace and inspiration during the Lockdown Spring of 2020.
Now I am certain there will come a point (and perhaps we have already reached it?) where we will be universally weary of projects made during/about Lockdown, but really the best of such works are examples of artists continuing their craft and responding, inevitably, to the contexts imposed upon them. Personally, I have long been a believer in the idea that the best environment for creativity is one where clear boundaries and expectations are set to work within; the illusive ‘freedom’ of the open brief a recipe for vague meandering. Certainly there is none of that vagueness on Balgay Hill, where meditations are instead beautifully crafted into deliciously brief episodes of transcendence, infused by sunlight and dew on barely opened eyelids.
The compositions are as poetic as their titles and include such choice numbers as ‘Sun Caught Cloud Like The Belly Of A Cat’, ‘Smiling School For Calvinists’, ‘Blossomlessness #2’, ‘Western Necropolis Twilight’ and ‘Avril Hydrangeas’: every one a charming, sublime sliver of instrumental, ambient folktronica that recalls the likes of July Skies and epic45 as well as the hazy off-centre early outings by Black Moth Super Rainbow and satanstompingcaterpillars, whose down-tempo hip-hop influenced psychotropic folk Balgay Hill most often reminds me of. Essential too are the trumpet and flugelhorn contributions of fellow Taysider Rachel Simpson; elements that seduce us with warmth and the promise of security amongst solitary uncertainty. One does not need to have known such uncertainty to understand at an elemental level the emotional discord suggested, for this succour resonates within the music and seeps softly into our psyche, soothing fears we may not ever have realised existed.
Nor does one need to know Balgay Park in order to know the landscape conjured by Wasylyk, for they are the inner miniatures we carry with us always: filmic flickers of light on the canvas; the worlds we find in pebbles; Emily Dickinson’s “casual simplicity”. Balgay Hill: Morning In Magnolia is an album of compositions that may be elementally rooted to place and time, but it is also a timeless evocation of a bigger, wider spirit: a transcendental journey to the inner landscapes of solace and hope, enveloped in the clutch of nature and architecture.