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Andrew King and Brown Sierra - Thalassocracy

Andrew King is an English folk singer and scholar of traditional song and vernacular culture. His previous albums The Bitter Harvest which was delivered a cappella and The Amfortas Wound, where he was aided by members of KnifeLadder, were wonderful examples of his keen singing style and knowledge in this area. More recently he has collaborated with the electronic experimentalist Andrew Liles, and currently he can be found amongst the ranks of Sol Invictus and together with Tony Wakeford they record as The Triple Tree. These previous solo releases featured sympathetic arrangements largely confined to harmonium, drone and voice. He may be a traditionalist but he has always been open to fresh interpretations none more so than those that can be found on this release recorded with Brown Sierra, an installation and performance group comprising Paddy Collins and Pia Gambardella.

Thalassocracy is based around a nautical theme and as with all Andrew King releases there are extensive liner notes detailing the history of each track, its variation and its source. King, it should be noted, has been employed by various institutions to catalog these recordings for future generations to enjoy. As such these notes are a wonderful addition, allowing the listener to fully appreciate the history of the song and for King to show his scholarly expertise in the area of vernacular culture.

This latest release began life as unaccompanied vocal performances recorded by Andrew King in late 2006. These were then worked on by Brown Sierra and Andrew King to create arrangements composed using found objects, adapted and self-made electronics, environmental recordings and test equipment. It's no wonder that Andrew King has referred to Thalassocracy as an unashamedly difficult album. Traditional folk song and avant garde music aren't the likeliest of bedfellows.

There are broadsides, ballads, sailor songs and sea shanties and four instrumentals amongst the thirteen tracks. Andrew King is in fine voice on these performances. His distinct voice, despite its imperfections, acts a conduit for these age old melodies. In the notes to one track King even critiques himself for "parrotting" the source singer's mannerisms and accidental methods - not that I, or many other listeners, for that matter would have noticed.

King's voice is clear and defined as he articulates these recitals with vigour and a vocal approach steeped in years of tradition. On 'Nancy of Yarmouth' he sings of an impending watery death over shifting electronic textures. High pitched tones underpin 'Banks of Green Willow', as Andrew King sings of a Sea Captain's lover thrown overboard as a sacrifice for bringing bad luck to the ship. King's voice is pensive and full of pathos as he recites 'The Captain's Apprentice', a lamentable tale of death by cruelty, awash with sqeaks and creaks, and the sounds of oars splashing through the water on a boating lake as gulls fly overhead. While many of the arrangements appear to be sound sculptures the arrangements on 'The Good Luck Ship' come close to embellishments illustrating the lyrics with sounds of a creaking bow, strike sounds and clattering percussion amidst the high-pitch frequencies. At other times the arrangements become more obtrusive as on the 'Dark Eyed Sailor' which is set to a series of metal percussion, bells, and gongs. Though not abrasive by any means these unformed sounds along with the frequencies that feature prominently do seem to work against the recitals. Even the instrumental tracks, titled after ships in the British Royal Navy, are formless excursions of buzzes, tones and frequencies to modulated electronics more akin to a radiophonic workshop. My preference tends to tracks such as 'Polly On The Shore' where King's sombre recital is framed with more descriptive sounds: the gushing winds, lashing rain and thunder cracks that surround this tale of war at sea.

Two tracks deal with the death of two great historical figures: Admiral Nelson and Napoleon Bonaparte. Bookended by the chimes of the Greenwich Royal Navy College clock, 'Nelson's Death' is a wonderful unaccompanied ballad telling of the death of the great British sea commander at Trafalgar. With the sound of the sea and a child's nursery toy 'The Bonnie Bunch of Roses' relates a conversation between Napoleon's widow and their son, as he lies on his death bed.

Andrew King is staunchly traditional when it comes to delivering the recitals but he's quite content to experiment freely with the arrangements whether it works on Thalassocracy is debatable. The arrangements of harmonium, drone and massesd vocal accompaniment that featured on previous releases is much more palatable than the experimental techniques employed here. Andrew King's close ties to post-industrial and neo-folk circles will undoubtedly soften the blow to the difficulties of Thalassocracy. What traditional folk fans will make of it is an altogether different matter. Thalassocracy is self-released by Andrew King's Epiphany Records label and can be purchased via for £10 via Paypal to or as an official download from CD Baby at