The city of Norwich is full of historic churches; this church of St Swithin was converted into an Arts Centre in 1980 and won the NME award for best small venue in Britain in 2014. It was the perfect venue for the gothic-folk of Smoke Fairies.
Accompanied by a drummer (and later to join the headliners on bass), John J Presley lets his guitar, bottleneck and deep-toned voice bring the audience into his world. With an echoing guitar sound straining and distorting, his songs use dark riffs on the lower strings on ‘Dance with Me’ and delve into murky blues for ‘On a Sunday’. ‘Left’ was a faster pop-like stomp and I found that the final song ‘Riders’ was a concise movie soundtrack lingering powerfully into the memory.
Smoke Fairies have a very new album out evocatively titled ‘Darkness Brings The Wonders Home’ and that formed the core of their set tonight, brought to life by the atmospheric guitar playing and magical dual voices of Jessica and Katherine. Opener ‘Super Tremolo’ has a tense, urgent structure and immediately all the elements are in place, a firm foundation from bass and drums as the guitars intertwine lines that fade in and out and the double line of vocals power through but float above the song.
Like a dark medieval folk song ‘Out Of The Woods’ is a definite highlight, the melody sounds like it is coming at you through the silvery trees and the harmonies in the chorus are otherworldly and sublime. Older songs such as ‘Summer Fades’ and ‘After The Rain’ from their first LP show how the band has developed to embrace different styles. ‘Left To Roll’ was the slow-burning emotional centrepiece of the show and the paranoid dream of ‘Elevator’ is built round a fuzzy, sinister chord sequence.
The encore featured the dense, complex ‘Feel It Coming Near’ and finally another new highlight, the rocking ‘Chocolate Rabbit’ (‘….you’re hollow inside, you leave me unsatisfied…’)
This is one of my favourite venues and Smoke Fairies are a band who can effortlessly weave their music into the fabric of this ancient building, as their majestic harmonies float up into the vaulted roof…
Rejoice! the Smoke Fairies are back! After a tour in 2015 with Public Service Broadcasting (and their vocals on The Race For Space album) there was the highly regarded seasonal LP ‘Wild Winter’ and then silence. Now we have the release of a superb new single ‘Out Of The Woods’ with an accompanying video and the hope of more music to come.
With a confident guitar figure in the introduction this track has that brooding, relentless feel of the best of their work, including a lyric loaded with threat and ambiguity, ‘….. Like the tangled roots I grew into you…. in winter’s mires you burn your fires…and you burn me too…’.
Every element is in place; the verses are heavy with melancholy and questioning but it is the harmonies in the chorus that really drive the track along ‘….Out there in the trees…the branches moving…I want to follow you but you cut your path straight through me…’. Sparsely arranged to focus on the hypnotic guitar and unadorned drum beats this distinctive folk-rock soon has the listener under its spell.
The video has the duo playing guitar and running through London Docklands and Epping Forest while a semi-mythical figure blends with the boughs lit only by the occasional sunlight through the trees. All very atmospheric and mysterious, reminiscent of cult eighties movie ‘The Company of Wolves’, illustrating the light and dark of the track perfectly.
While on the lookout for another seasonal disc to complement the grizzled optimism of Bob Dylan’s ‘Christmas In The Heart’ I found this atmospheric offering from Smoke Fairies, originally given a limited release last year and now reissued.
Opening track ‘Christmas Without A Kiss’ sets the tone for the album, as deep bass pedals and distant sharp-edged guitar underpin a world-weary lyric ‘I don’t have the one I love, I want snow I get rain’. This album is clearly no jaunty collection of clichéd sleigh bells and happiness revolving around the big day.
‘Steal Softly Thru Snow’ showcases the duo’s hypnotic harmony vocals with an attractive instrumental break in there too. ‘Give And Receive’ has abstract references to the Christmas story, all floating over an elegant instrumental backdrop. ‘Circles In The Snow’ is a shimmering delight, ‘Bad Good’ is a more disquieting affair, then the title track ‘Wild Winter’ is like a sinister walk in the woods, followed by an acoustic interlude, ‘Snowglobe Blizzard’.
‘So Much Wine’ is a disturbing tale of domestic disharmony, then final song ‘All Up In The Air’ is a distillation of what has been before, the gentle introduction building to an impressive finish.
So ideally sat in front of the fire with mulled wine in hand (or perhaps some ‘Wild Winter’, a 6.8% beer brewed for this release?), slow down, hibernate and listen to this bittersweet album, contemplating the unchanging rhythms of the winter solstice.
Public Service Broadcasting arrived at a sold-out Corn Exchange as part of their biggest tour so far. Support was from the excellent Smoke Fairies, playing dreamy, atmospheric folk-guitar based songs, the dual female voices blended carefully in the mix to become like another instrumental texture for most of the time, occasionally with a single lead vocal. Sustained bass and deep keyboard notes hovered over some mighty drumming and the atmospheric retro/future look of black and silver for simple stage set and costumes worked well.
Then there was an intriguing half hour while the stage was set, roadies and band members all up there fixing the bits and pieces. No doubt there was probably more technological power than that used to control the moon landings. The three bespectacled and necktied musicians of PSB, complete with visuals and effects co-ordinator opened with ‘Sputnik’ (including a satellite rising from the stage) and set the tone for a great show. They were playing live drums, percussion, various guitars, keyboards, loops, flugel horn and banjo (!)….on CD the music and sampled voices work well (see my earlier review), but beef up the concert sound and add the visuals too and it makes the band a formidable live attraction.
Two large screens at the back and flanking towers of retro TVs show images of the space race, film of the band as they played and in the most arresting and poignant section of the show, civilian preparations for World War Two and the development of the Spitfire. All communication with the audience was through pre-recorded then manipulated soundbites in a robot voice, which is either a subtle comment on the artifice of modern rock shows or actually just a very entertaining joke (why are robot voices intrinsically funny?).
I was stunned by the hypnotic roll of ‘Night Mail’, the rocking out of ‘The Now Generation’ and ‘Signal 30’, the pulsing electronica of ‘Theme From PSB’ and the newer space songs were woven in to maximum effect. Smoke Fairies were back on stage to add heavenly voices to ‘Valentina’ and the final Moon landing song and new single ‘Go!’ closed the main show. Back for the encore with the musically different and extra-funky ‘Gagarin’, complete with brass section and astronaut dancer. Finally it was ‘Everest’ (have the band peaked?!) and that was it, the crowd were very happy and it was one of the best shows I have seen at the Corn Exchange for a long time.
I think there is much more to come…