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Twelve Thousand Days - The Boatman On The Downs

Twelve Thousand Days The Boatman On The Downs coverThe enduring collaboration between Martyn Bates and Alan Trench recorded The Boatman On The Downs whilst "channelling the spirits of Albion and John Masefield." It's no surprise that Twelve Thousand Days are in the lineage of folk music, but, whilst the songs and traditions have been passed down over generations, over the course of 7 albums and 20 odd years they've went well beyond incorporating elements of prog rock, psychedelia, experimental and improvisation. What runs through their music is the eternal themes, mysticism, nature and a passion for poems, legends and myths. And of course there is the remarkable voice of Martyn Bates, a voice so pure and evocative that it deserves to be heard. Alongside their own songs, The Boatman On The Downs includes arrangements of 'Arthur McBride' and 'Early One Morning'. We've previously referred to their rough-hewn arrangements but The Boatman On The Downs is something else. Something more much more refined, for the most part.

The English poet John Masefield is cited as an influence and perhaps he is there in the numerous references to the seasons, the seas, the land, the sun and the moon which figure heavily in the lyrics of Twelve Thousand Days. In Martyn Bates, they have one of the great folk voices, albeit one somewhat undervalued. Just listen to 'Comely' where he sings of the seasons with a voice so full of warmth and longing basking in the subtle atmospherics adorned with the jangle of bells.

Twelve Thousand Days are on more familiar folk territory on the gentle lilting strum of 'The Brides of May' where the voices of Bates and Trench combine to great effect, as they sing in unison, "All of the widows cry honey and milk". On 'Arthur McBride' they provide their own arrangement of a traditional folk song. Over a feverish bodhran beat and ringing guitars Bates in earnest and defiant tone tells of two friend strolling along a beach who encounter a recruiting sergeant intent on enticing them with money and uniforms. They refuse and a fight ensues, reflected in scorching discordant guitar lines, before they cast the hapless soldiers' swords into the sea. Alongside 'The Brides of May' this one which could be considered a protest or anti-war song is the folkiest of the bunch on The Boatman On The Downs as they opt to follow less well travelled paths.

An owl hoots amidst the woozy haunting organ of 'A Frankish Casket' where Bates in hushed pensive tones sheds light on the imagery (including Wayland the Smith) and cryptic inscriptions engraved on an Anglo-Saxon chest held within the British Museum. A hermetic text may be the inspiration for 'The Emerald Tablet' which reveals the up to now hidden experimental nature of the group; its quiet intimacy formed from rippling guitar work, shrouded in distant voice echoes and synths, as Bates using the words of Djinn's sings of the secrets of the universe.

The atmospheric folk of 'Tale From A Silver City' is more austere. Bates ruminates on death in a voice pure and direct over slow guitar pickings, furnished with sparse chime and shimmering synths. 'The Summer Tree' marks the passing of time, where over tumbling guitar notes an impassioned Bates references trees, his voice soaring and stretching, as the music swells and forms into strident strum before journeying off accompanied by deep bass tones and mellotron vibrations. Unwinding to mournful synths, 'Under What Scars' sets off in guitar strum, its featherlight approach, heightened by whoosing synths, masking a hidden meaning. "Can you fly" Bates asks, over lurking discordant sounds. Undoubtedly more personal, it captures a deliberation on an episode which perhaps lead to the death of a friend.

Death and a sense of longing stream through The Boatman On The Downs but the sadness that flows through the 'The Boatman' is unmissable. Gentle strum plays out over mournful organ and the wistful drone of a harmonica as Bates emotes on a lover set never to return. Midway through spartan beats pound and gulls squawk but the sense of loss is never diminished: "my heart is bruised and broken, and from my eyes the tears are streaming, come you tonight". It is by far the most moving track and one quite beautiful for such a lonely and foolish quest.

If it wasn't clear by now that Twelve Thousand Days aren't a typical traditional folk group you only need to hear 'As The Sun', a loose and improvised arrangement based on the ballad of 'Early One Morning'. An untraditional take on a traditional folk song. Bates voice hovers over a sprinkling of guitar notes scattered over a sustained howl. Like other Twelve Thousand Days songs this is as much a journey as it is a song and as it saunters onwards it is accompanied at points by passages of wispy flute, penny whistles and various additional voices. The overall effect is of transforming an archaic song into something more dreamlike and hallucinatory.

In as much as the music has its roots in the folk tradition, Twelve Thousand Days extend, embelish and distort it entwining it with different genres using a large array of instruments including synths (but not as much as previous albums, and I'm thinking here of 'Pathless' on Insect Silence), lyrically Twelve Thousand Days absorb different forms of traditions and myths, this one, inspired by an English poet's words on nature and the sea, captures a spirit sure to resonate with others. The Boatman On The Downs is perhaps the best summation of their long standing collaboration. The Boatman On The Downs is available digitally and on CD from Final Muzik bandcamp