“They can go home and tell their friends, ‘I was on the border and I saw a battle.’”
Marom, retired Colonel, Israel Defence Forces (now working in tourism). The Atlantic: July 2014
The above quote relates to those who stand on the Israeli Syrian border watching the consequences of the civil war in a new rise of ‘Dark Tourism’. With conflict of every kind much to the fore in people’s minds, the timing and naming of Katriona Gilmore and Jamie Roberts new album is apt. Rather than ambulance-chase for stories, the duo have appropriated the saying and extended its original, somewhat disturbing use to cover conflict of all kinds, be it external and physical or internal and intangible. The result is a set of songs that provoke as much as they delight, leading the listener on an uncomfortable lyrical journey despite the music’s obvious inclination to have you press ‘repeat’.
Conflict Tourism is the duo’s fourth album. Twice nominated for BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards, they have built a reputation on their live performances and an unconventional approach to their chosen instruments, an approach that has seen their output compared in the past to indie rock. The music onConflict Tourism certainly shares some classic hallmarks of Folk’s noisier cousins, in particular the song structures, a lot of which build and fade throughout in echo of rock’s guitar-led sounds – at various points it’s easy to imagine an electric guitar or two duelling for supremacy in a crescendo. Also evident is their willingness to use programmed drums and strong rhythms based on the snare alongside more hands-on guitar-tap percussion. It makes for a potent brew that feels like a natural successor to the classic folk-rock of previous decades without losing sight of its DNA.
The combination of a modern vernacular with traditional storytelling isn’t new to Gilmore and Roberts; they’ve been honing a similar sound ever since their 2008 debut Shadows And Half Light. They’ve made brave choices of their production colleagues; for 2012s The Innocent Left, they looked to Julian Simmons (Guillemots, Albert Lee) to craft their sound. Much like a lot of their contemporaries, however, they remain deeply connected to the folk and acoustic movement via their work on other projects, most notably Katriona’s association with the currently dormant Albion Band. At the heart of each song, the music remains very much Katriona’s fiddle and Jamie’s guitar; it’s how they use them that stands out.
Their influences are immediately available to the listener on opener Cecilia. She comes crashing in on a stop and start melody that builds to a chorus where biting the bullet is her only option. Strong harmonies glue the song together across its brittle rhythm and the trebly clash of programmed drums and percussion. It’s catchy as hell and sets the album up nicely. Phillip Henry adds affecting lap steel to Jack O Lantern, Jamie’s tense and sinuous take on the American mythology behind the carving of pumpkins at Halloween. Matt Downer’s upright bass is a strong spine for Katriona’s cutting fiddle, the verse melody rises and falls with Jamie’s voice and the middle-eight’s overlaid whispering is suitably spooky.
She Doesn’t Like Silence slows proceedings to a fragile and frayed half-walk. It’s the first standout, the tale of an internal monologue that will strike a chord with everyone of a certain age, whether it’s personal to themselves or as a result of seeing a loved one suffering. Allied to a beautiful melody, lines like ‘I recognise the face but not the frown’ and ‘It seems like she lives here, an uninvited guest’ leave the listener in little doubt as to the direction of travel, but the song avoids becoming maudlin, largely due to Katriona’s voice and the realisation that, however hard it might be, ’It might be awhile, ‘til I’m myself again’. Such emotions may be difficult to assimilate but they do at least provide hope in a song that for the most part is soul-destroyingly sad.
All three songs display experienced hands on the tune-tiller, as well as developing inventive ways with structure and instrumentation. Aside fromShe Doesn’t Like Silence, there’s a lot going on in the songs and this approach carries through the rest of the album, though not at the expense of the listener’s attention; each track is easy to keep abreast of, allowing the hooks to sink deep after minimal airtime.
Both Selfish Man and Stumble On The Seam are excellent examples of their work ethic. Both are busy pieces, up tempo, featuring intricate playing and a cascade of words. Jamie’s Selfish Man is a rare critique of the Y chromosome by someone born under its yoke. Katriona’s Stumble.. is single material, a generational story of perseverance and determination that ends when a grandson finds the missing Blue John seam of the title hidden deep within the Derbyshire hills. It’s a foot stomper that errs towards Seth Lakeman’s Barrel House territory in temperament but Katriona’s voice lifts it from the mine and out towards the moors.
Peggy Airey is perhaps the best of a middle quartet that, withBalance/Imbalance, creates a backbone of tracks that elevates the album from good to excellent. It’s a contemporary track that might have been a ‘trad. arr’, based on the nineteenth century woman who appeared on the streets of Barnsley and wished everyone well at Christmas. It feels like a live sing-along and future fan favourite after one listen; is that folk enough for you?
If it isn’t, the remainder of Conflict Tourism won’t provide you with succour as the duo take on difficult and painful subject matter ranging from the personal to the international. Peter Pan, perhaps moreso than She Doesn’t Like Silence, is a sad, sad song, poignant and misty-eyed. Written in memoriam to Jamie’s cousin, it achieves its purpose whilst avoiding any saccharine aftertaste, easily done if the song is written from the heart. Warmongercertainly is. A fierce rebuttal of those who drag nations into conflict of the dubious kind (is there any other in recent times?) against their wishes, it stamps its feet and pins it colours to a mast that politicians of all stripes have long lost sight of in their endless pursuit of career over care.
Once you’ve allowed the fire to die a little, closing track Ghost Of A Ring is a mellow and mellifluous ending, Katriona singing over mandolin and guitar about how physical connections and their ceremonial accompaniments never really fade, in this case the marks left by a ring. It’s a measured, beautiful, if a little downbeat, way to end an album where the duo more than fulfil their aim, taking us through theatres of conflict that directly and indirectly affect every one of us. Some of them will be known to you and some won’t, but they all have value and they’re all delivered without gratuity, allowing you to learn as you enjoy. Unlike Marom, Gilmore and Roberts step over the border, wade through the battles and emerge unbowed. You should join them.