Lightbox

Spiro, 2009

Lightbox is Spiro's first album for Real World Records - an extraordinarily stirring record. Recorded over four days at Real World Studios in Box and partly by Simon Emmerson (the chief architect behind the Afro Celt Sound System and The Imagined Village projects), it showcases a highly imaginative and highly disciplined group with a sound that's unified but never uniform. All four members, all four instruments, pull in the same direction, creating music that's intricate yet so full of momentum. These are hurrying, scurrying soundscapes that sweep majestically with cinematic presence, echoing - at various points - the work of Steve Reich, Michael Nyman and the Penguin Café Orchestra. But, kindred spirits aside, this is the music of Spiro - undeniably English, undeniably theirs.

Despite a slew of work for theatre, film and television, Spiro remain something of an enigma, a well-kept secret that's only now starting to spread. Even in their hometown of Bristol, they're decidedly inconspicuous, thanks to their gentle, organic and snail-slow blooming. "There was never a grand plan," explains Jon. "It's just evolved. Some kind of magic thing happened between us that wasn't necessarily expected. It was quite serendipitous. We're all quite different as musicians and we each brought in particular passions and visions. It's all been about the interaction of those visions."

Jon's fascination with traditional english tunes means he is the one who brings the strongest folk element to Spiro - "he's Mr Tunes!" beams Jane. "I do love northern English tunes," he concedes. "They're my obsession, so strange and dark and wonderful." Indeed, the tunes utilised on Lightbox are irresistible, in particular their fast-fingered take on The White Hart and the gorgeous, meandering traditional melody that threads its way through their song Pop. But it's what the group does with these tunes that sets them apart, using them as a launch pad to propel themselves to realms way beyond the folk music constituency. "I would be happy writing music that didn't have any tunes at all," admits Jane, "just riffs and grooves. But Jon's always pulling towards putting a tune in. That's what makes us so strong. There are people in the band who want to put in a perfect pop arrangement and others who just like to play weird stuff for a very long time!"

That the group still boast their original line-up speaks volumes for this sense of collectivism and solidarity. These are virtues that are writ large in their music, a commendable all-for-one sensibility. Listen to just a few bars of any track from the new record and that tight ensemble sound is both overwhelming and invigorating. "All of us are thoroughly energetic people," Jane explains. "We all operate at the tips of our energy and nerves. That really helps the chemistry. And we all play each other's parts so there are no 'ownership' issues. There are no egos - it's never 'OK, I'm just playing my part'." Jon nods. "There's no showmanship. There are no solos. There's no ornamentation to attract attention to one particular instrument. In fact, there's that feeling that each member of the band isn't just playing that instrument. That they're playing the whole thing."

This is what Spiro refer to as "the mesh", the locked-in ensemble sound that's a relentless, wonderfully overpowering assault on the eardrums. Although there are plenty of moments of quieter contemplation on Light Box, this unstoppable ensemble sound is in heavy evidence throughout the new record. It provides the fury on Captain Say Catastrophe, the momentum of Darkling Plains, the euphoria of Shaft. Think of it as an acoustic wall of sound.

"We're all playing more than one part at the same time," explains Jane. "If you listen to what any individual instrument is doing, it's really quite complex. I like the fact that the audience can hear a riff but might not be able to work out who's playing it. I think that's what gives it the widescreen feel. There are backed-up lines happening all over the place." "It becomes a bit orchestral," adds Jon. "It sounds like there are more than four instruments playing, even though there never are. We've never done a single overdub on any of our recordings. It's just always exactly as it would be live."
The arrangements are deeply complex and planned within an inch of their lives, with everything being meticulously picked apart, discarded, retrieved, reworked and often patched together in new sequences. It's a near-scientific approach. Tunes and riffs will be played at a band practice before Jane goes away to scrutinise and evaluate, pulling out the most interesting parts to be revisited next time around. "I'll come back and say 'Yeah, that bit. And put those bits together.' It's a continual process of listening back, of sometimes putting things together that weren't together in the first place. That's then the starting point for the next practice." A painstaking way of working? "It's obsessive! Everything is totally arranged, right down to the last note, the last semi-quaver. We can't divert from that. Yes, I am a mathematical geek."

It's therefore something of a contradiction that this forensic approach to composition and performance unlocks an extraordinary emotional response to their music, both on record and live. "There can be something strangely moving about something very mathematical," explains Jon. Jane agrees, citing the euphoria she often experiences through dance music. "I find repetition very moving. The more precise you are with it, the more you can engineer emotions. People seem to cry at our gigs!"

"We're just trying to get people hooked at an emotional level. I've always loved playing live, making things happen in a room, transforming all that nerdy work into an airborne experience. You can do this so much more by playing live instruments rather than pressing a button on a computer." Jon smiles in agreement. "It's a lot more interesting to watch people playing instruments than someone playing this slab of electronics?"

"?and it's a lot more interesting watching people struggling to play it!" laughs Jane. "I think that's part of the excitement. There's that element of danger. Are we going to make it or not...?"

visit www.spiromusic.com for more from Spiro

Reviews

  • Absolutely sublime! (Live review from Holywell Music Room, Oxford) One of the joys of being a music critic is that every so often you come across a totally unexpected gem...at the Holywell, acoustic folk group Spiro turned out to be just that...a refreshingly different sound that eschews vocals and solo instruments in favour of solid ensemble playing. The four instruments - violin/viola (Jane Harbour), guitar (Jon Hunt), mandolin (Alex Vann) and accordion (Jason Sparkes) - gyrate around each other in a harmonious fusion of styles, in which traditional English folk meets modern classicism and electronic dance music. The result is a well-crafted, resolute sound that is richly-textured, strong on rhythm and melody, and utterly compelling. Supporting Spiro was hurdy-gurdy player Cliff Stapleton...(but)...the evening, indisputably, belonged to Spiro, whose imaginative, experimental sound, underpinned by virtuosic playing from all four members of the band, was mesmerizing. Absolutely sublime. The Oxford Times (UK)
  • Spellbinding excellence... FORMERLY known as the Famous Five, the Bristol-based instrumental quartet Spiro have been around since 1993, but seem always to have preferred maintaining an enigmatically low profile, latterly changing their name and last year releasing only their third album, Lightbox. That recording, though, marked their signing to Peter Gabriel's Real World label and was mentioned in several critics' year-end dispatches, so hopefully we'll be seeing more of them in future. The meagre turnout here - on the dreichest night of the winter - didn't reflect the spellbinding excellence of their performance. In broad terms, Spiro's sound, intricately wrought from the raw materials of violin, mandolin, accordion and acoustic guitar, might be located somewhere between a more delicate version of Lau, the Penguin Café Orchestra and Philip Glass/Michael Nyman minimalism. Splicing reconstructed traditional tunes with original compositions, it abounds in gorgeous melodies and hypnotic grooves, achieving a magically dynamic equilibrium of iridescent vitality and rigorous technical precision. The band have called themselves musical geeks, and only a degree of obsessiveness could have created the fiendishly complex rhythmic subdivisions within a basic 4/4 or 3/4 beat, or instilled the quicksilver fluency with which the four swapped and realigned segments of melody, harmony, counterpoint, riff and ornament. The music's often cinematic grandeur and intense emotional impact, however - from aching melancholy to anthemic exultation leavened with a sprinkling of mischief, whimsy and wilful kookiness - luxuriantly transcended any risk of solipsism, such that the show's only downside was that it ended all too soon. The Scotsman (Live review from Pleasance Theatre, Edinburgh) (UK)
  • Spiro's sound has a textural richness and variety unmatched by any other acoustic four-piece I've ever heard. It's always refreshing to be reminded how much can be made out of so little. With just mandolin, accordion, violin and guitar, folk quartet Spiro have put together a sound which seems to combine the best of so many things into something uniquely irresistible. The instrumentation and the melodic sensibility could be described as 'folk-friendly', but Spiro really aren't the traditional folk quartet. Whereas the main focus in trad-folk is usually the melody, Spiro's sound has a textural richness and variety unmatched by any other acoustic four-piece I've ever heard. There are definite resonances with the Penguin Café Orchestra; an endearingly playful reshaping of traditional folk melodies, as well as a focus on the textural warmth and richness of acoustic instruments. But there is a rhythmic urgency and complexity which sets Spiro apart from Penguin Café's introspective ambience. Exquisitely conceived rhythmic cells criss-cross in and out of each other, creating the kaleidoscopic hypnosis you might usually get listening to Steve Reich. But again, this comparison is lacking. Although we might normally associate American minimalism with Zen Buddhism and marijuana, Spiro's infectious melodic exuberance propels the rhythmic engine skywards like a euphoric dance anthem. Cherry-picking from both albums, Pole Star and Lightbox you couldn't help but be won over by the joyous energy of a group who know they've really found their own sound. Now Then (Live review from Band On The Wall performance) (UK)
  • Spiro, The Forge, Basingstoke At first breath, Spiro sound like a folk band. But their relationship to traditional music is oblique. Vaughan Williams took old country melodies and reworked them into his classical palette. Spiro sound as if four of Steve Reich's "18 Musicians" had worked a similar transformation. Their starting points are old hornpipes and jigs and airs, but the fragments of melody have to be discerned through a minimalist shimmer of repetition. Jane Harbour's violin and viola are as likely to be sawing a pulse that fades in and out as they are to be carrying a tune; Jason Sparkes' piano accordion sometimes pipes arpeggios, sometimes mutters harsh, dissonant chords. The boundaries are set by Alex Vann's mandolin, spiky and high on the fretboard, and Jon Hunt's guitar, essentially a rhythmic bottom end. The pieces tend to finish abruptly in mid-bar, all four players cutting out at the same instant. Spiro's other distinctive trait is that any hint of improvisation is ruthlessly eliminated. The pieces are run out like clockwork; their album Lightbox has the crystalline precision of a studio artefact but was recorded in single takes with no overdubs. Live, the music only deviates from the template if the musicians make a mistake, and they hardly ever do. This makes it sound as if Spiro are easy to admire and hard to love. In fact, the concert showed them at their best. Last summer, playing at festivals, the flap of canvas and the pelt of steady rain blurred their sound, but in the precise environs of a concert hall, it came into focus. "The Lost Heart", built off a 17th-century melody, showed its baroque colours. "Shaft" contained, barely perceptibly, the melody of "Bobby Shaftoe", but the scratchy mandolin funk of the rhythm made sense of the title's glance at Isaac Hayes. The plinked back-and-forth that opened and closed "Binatone" paid homage to the early video game Pong. Spiro are a genre of their own. FT.com (UK)
  • Refreshingly Unnerving ...The Bristol Band are imbued in the culture of informal sessions and you assume this is another album of dance tunes with a strong English feel. But within the fiddle/mandolin/guitar/accordian framework rhythms go haywire, tunes somersault and the sound adopts darker, edgier twists. Refreshingly unnerving. Mojo (UK)
  • Beguiling and Often Complex SPIRO belong at the more experimental end of the acoustic folk scene, where the idioms of English folk music meet the strategies of contemporary minimalism and systems music. The emphasis is entirely on ensemble playing, in which traditional soloing is replaced by a constantly shifting focus on different instruments within the whole. The chugging, insistently repeating rhythms and strands of clearly folk-derived melody are interweaved in tightly arranged patterns to beguiling and often complex effect. The obvious empathy between violinist Jane Harbour, pianist and accordion player Jason Sparkes, mandolin player Alex Vann and guitarist Jon Hunt, which underlies that intricacy of execution is all the more impressive when you consider that the disc was recorded live in the studio, with no overdubs. The Scotsman (UK)
  • Emotionally Charged and Spirit Reviving ...The album is a beautifully recorded statement of Spiro's musical world where arrangements that might befit anthemic rock music are harnessed around thematic tunes that somehow tell their own wordless story, elaborated with insistence and the cosmic precision of an antique astrolabe. The results sound classical and folky, ancient and modern and (above all) emotionally charged and spirit-reviving. Venue Magazine (UK)
  • Breathtakingly moving While all critics and fans so far have been keen (and correct) to point out the parallels here between Spiro and systems music specialists such as Steve Reich or with other contemporary folk(ish) ensembles like Penguin Cafe Orchestra, there is a USP to Spiro's music. For one, it is far closer to folk traditions than it almost dares to admit. The rather arbitrary division of traditional and modern forms erroneously denies the linear heritage; for what is a jig or a reel, if not systems music before the term was coined? Secondly, their adherence to scales and instrumentality that all come with attendant rural connotations means that it takes a while to realise that this is staggeringly complex stuff. Partly produced by Simon Emmerson, the man behind the Imagined Village project, Lightbox has no solos and no showboating, but considerable skill. Much like King Crimson's gamelan-like explorations in the 80s, this is cerebral music, precise and well thought out. If that makes you think of something cold and unfeeling, you'd be wrong. Melodies that bleed through the warp and weft as on Underland or The White hart can be breathtakingly moving, and their ear for understanding how to build something towards a dazzling climax means that even if you don't experience them on disc, you should most definitely catch them live. Without a doubt it'll be quite a spectacle. BBC Online (UK)
  • Melodically Inventive and Emotionally Compelling ...Intense and minimal, they roll out complex arrangements with such ease that you feel your heart lift a few inches above its normal resting place....Melodically inventive and emotionally compelling, this is a fantastic record. The Word (UK)
  • Sophisticated and adventurous. The folk scene - or rather, the experimental acoustic folk-influenced scene - is becoming increasingly sophisticated and adventurous, and Spiro are leading exponents of this new genre. They are an instrumental quartet, playing guitar, accordion, violin and mandolin, who rework traditional folk melodies into stirring, rhythmic and often complex pieces that make use of the repeated phrases and patterns of systems music. In some ways, they are like a British folk answer to the Penguin Cafe Orchestra - though with a less exotic musical lineup - while echoing the tight interplay of that brilliant acoustic folk trio Lau. The quartet have developed a style in which there are no improvised solos, just tight arrangements in which the various instruments all provide the melodies and rhythmic settings. The mood is always changing, from the drifting and lyrical I Fear You Just As I Fear Ghosts (they specialise in memorable titles) to the slinky and jaunty Antrobus. This would be great film soundtrack music - and I mean that as a compliment. The Guardian (UK)
  • There are few English folk records of the sublime individuality of Lightbox. New music (mostly) with its roots deep in the music of the British Isles, Spiro give a modern twist to traditional dance (that's dance as in John Playford's Dancing Master, circa 1651). Not by anything as obvious as electrification or eccentric instrumentation - the quartet of strings plus squeezebox remain resolutely acoustic. No, Spiro's achievement is to combine clarity of line with a driving rhythm. Folksy melodies repeat and ripple and interweave to form an intricate sonic mesh, while the sweeping rhythms invoke minimalist music of Steve Reich and Philip Glass. The results have the hallucinatory effect of trance, albeit trance with incredible vitality. Not many English folk records find their way onto Peter Gabriel's Real World label, but then there are few English folk records of the sublime individuality of Lightbox. Manchester Evening News (UK)
  • Compelling, strangely soulful music of mind and body. Ultra-detailed arrangements. Lots of forward drive. No affect. It's folk music of a kind, rooted geographically in the English West Country, but not as you'd expect it to sound. It steams from point A to whatever point it's going to with all the train-like persistence of a Steve Reich composition. In pieces such as "I Fear You Just as I Fear Ghosts" it exhibits other properties, which pulsate with gospel trenchancy. An oddly compelling, strangely soulful music of mind and body. The Independent (UK)