Spiro first met on the Bristol music scene and have been together, their line-up completely unchanged, for over 20 years. In 2009 Spiro signed to Real World Records and went on to release two albums: Lightbox (2009) and Kaleidophonica (2012). It seems fitting, then, to complete the set and re-issue Pole Star, which originally came out independently in 1997.
Pole Star was recorded live in a two day session at the former BBC Christchurch Studios in Bristol in the winter of 1996-7 by Portishead engineer Rik Dowding. At the time the studio was also in use by Massive Attack for the recording of their Mezzanine album. A curious Liz Fraser, there to record the vocal for 'Teardrop', was taken with the sounds she heard from downstairs and wandered into the Spiro session, much to the excitement of the admiring band members.
The photo session for the original album artwork took place on a grey day in the nearby seaside town of Clevedon, the grand plan being to have the band emerging mysteriously from the sea. The quartet waded dutifully through thick mud to immerse themselves in the brown sludge of the Bristol Channel, emerging as the subjects of a deeply unpleasant collection of photographs which have remained mercifully unused to this day. The chosen photo ultimately showed them drying off on the pier!
The band had met three years earlier in an eclectic music session in Bristol, but the material for Pole Star was written in a series of rural retreats in Wales and Cornwall. This lost gem of an album is a wonderful addition to the Spiro collection, demonstrating how their unique and fascinating sound began, and how fresh it remains after 17 years.
Since their formation (originally as The Famous Five), it was clear that Spiro were not your average acoustic instrumental act. Their music has since been aptly likened to "Detroit techno played by a travelling band out of a Hardy novel - or Steve Reich playing the cider-scented backroom of a village pub" by The Word; described as "oddly compelling, strangely soulful music of mind and body" by The Independent on Sunday; "cinematic, breathtaking and beautiful" by Songlines.
That the group still boast their original line-up speaks volumes for their 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 and that tight ensemble sound is both overwhelming and invigorating. "All of us are thoroughly energetic people," violin player Jane explains. "We all operate at the tips of our energy and nerves. That really helps the chemistry. 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."
Spiro's approach to composition and performance unlocks an extraordinary emotional response to their music, both on record and live. "We're just trying to get people hooked at an emotional level. You can do this so much more by playing live instruments rather than pressing a button on a computer," Jon explains. "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...?"
- ...streets ahead of almost anything else around. It's that good. With a new studio album in the offing for 2015, this is just the right moment to discover what Spiro sounded like all those years ago - what they've added in the interim is the ability to make everything sound bigger and more enveloping, but Pole Star stands up on its own merits and is still streets ahead of almost anything else around. It's that good. FRoots Magazine (UK)
- ...as precise as a Swiss watch; live there is a thrill in seeing the gears, levers and cogs whirr and tick. Financial Times (UK)
- * * * * Pole Star sounds new, original and urgent. Jane Harbours fiddle and Jason Sparkes' accordion paint a broad canvas; Jon Hunt brushes vigorous figures on it with his guitar, whiles Alex Vann stipples points of pure colour with his mandolin. It is music that's complex in its emotional engagement: simultaneously calming, exciting, joyful and melancholic. Songlines Magazine (UK)
- * * * * * Pole Star is nothing short of brilliant. The band creates a mesh of richly textured and layered melodies as it dances with unchecked enthusiasm between minimalism and folk music. As eclectic an amalgamation as the folk music it represents or originates from, Spiro is really a boundary pusher. While using old folk tunes, Spiro has been able to transcend those roots and folkish melodies and embark into something unique. Allaboutjazz.com (online )