Welcome Joy and Welcome Sorrow
Spiro: "Dazzling", "magnificent", "intense and minimal", "soulful", "passionate", "breathtakingly moving" - this unique Bristol-based acoustic four-piece are celebrated for the beauty of their interlocking, intricate musical patterns. Like whirlpools, they suck you in to a compelling, complex minimalism and you're swept away in an irresistible river of sound. And just when you think it can't get any better, with each release Spiro up their game.
Testifying to the brilliance of each musician, this music of many-layered depth is produced with just four instruments at any given moment. Jane Harbour (violin/viola), Jon Hunt (acoustic guitar/cello), Alex Vann (mandolin) and Jason Sparkes (piano accordion/piano) break through the boundaries of their instruments and play them in unconventional ways. Harbour says: "Someone said to me when I was very young, think of your violin as a drum kit, and I've been trying to do that ever since." As Vann puts it: "We re-imagine our instruments. For me, my greatest challenge musically is trying to get emotion out of the mandolin. I have to make it punch above its weight. Whereas Jane refuses to fall into the emotive cliches of the violin, she packs it with emotion, but it's not expressed in an expected way." Unfettered in their thinking about what's possible, they rise to the demands of the music.
And the music is demanding. It's exhilarating, whether watching the band perform or listening in the comfort of your own home. The whole thing is so totally dependent on complex parts interlocking at the right moment that you sense one slip and it would all come crashing down, like a small, mistimed movement in Formula 1 might prove suddenly fatal. And like that expert drive, the precision is so fine that it's freeing; freedom and space flow from the intricacy of the arrangements.
Spiro aim, Harbour explains, to "combine the multi-layered complexity of classical music with the melodic strength of traditional folk tunes and the simplicity and groove of modern loop-based music." "with", adds Vann: "the punch, drive and abandon of rock." Both he and Hunt began in punk and new wave bands whilst Harbour and Sparkes started out playing classical music, Sparkes aged 6 in an accordion group and Harbour as a student of Suzuki. As well as combining these influences, Spiro are inspired by minimalist composers such as Steve Reich and Philip Glass and by techno and electronica.
It was their shared love of traditional tunes that brought them together in the '90's at an acoustic folk session in a Bristol pub. Sourcing tunes that might be 500 years old, a process which Hunt says he loves as they connect him to the continuity of human experience, Spiro weave these melodies into the compelling new sound-world of the band's systems-inspired arrangements. Here, riffs and tunes explode into life, tussle, win and lose, decay and re-emerge, themselves reflecting that continuity.
Each member will bring ideas to rehearsal, but it's Harbour, the main contributor and band's driving-force, who assembles the nuts and bolts of the composition. She says: "We all have strong opinions and don't always agree, but in rehearsal ideas are really thrashed out on the four instruments. There's a lot of juggling, jamming and experimenting to see how those ideas sound together - and if more emerge. I then listen back to the results, which always suggests ways of moving forward. I sometimes use very simple systems to mesh the riffs together, so that the instruments become one machine. We've worked together for so long, we've got a shorthand to get to places quickly. We understand each other emotionally and musically. There's always an unspoken story driving a piece of music, one that makes emotional sense to us all, and we all see that story the same way. We'll pull each other up on ideas that aren't working and aren't afraid to chuck them out, however much we like them."
Proof of their success lies in audience reaction in different cultures across the world; wherever they play, people describe similar emotional experiences, despite hearing the music in uniquely personal ways.
The powerful emotional intensity that Spiro transmit comes from the unity of the band. Each member focuses not on individual showboating but on serving the whole. Hunt says: "If I strive for anything, it's maximum simplicity. I try to provide a simple backbone with as little movement as possible, so changing one note is like a small shift in a sail that makes the whole thing move in a different direction".
Harbour says: "Onstage I often feel there's an energy building in the room and you just don't know where it started. Did it start in the audience, did it start in the music, did it start in us?" It's an inclusive feeling that seems to expand throughout a gig. Vann explains: "Music taps into something fundamental to us all, and instrumental music is particularly rewarding and meaningful as you don't know why you're feeling emotional. You've reached a place beyond words, the most amazing place that we all share. We go through life trying to connect with other people and the universe, and music is a powerful, fundamentally honest way of doing this. With instrumental music this connection is not muddled by words." It's why Spiro are an instrumental band.
Yet words are important - not only do the titles of each track inform the way the band perform it, they suggest a way into Spiro's sound world whilst offering intensely personal listening experiences.
With Welcome Joy and Welcome Sorrow, the title of a Keats poem, Spiro take you through the "extremes of human experience. It's an album about being alive. Keats' line 'Dancing music, music sad, both together, sane and mad' is pretty much a musical mission statement for us."
They first found their sound with Pole Star, debuted in 1997 and recently re-released by Real World, to whom they signed in 2009. The Simon Emmerson-produced Lightbox came out the same year, followed by Kaleidophonica (2012). An Adrian Utley-produced mini-album of Moog re-mixes The Vapourer was released a year later, highlighting the trance/dance element of the band's music that links Spiro to the sound that Bristol became famous for. But refining their own sound over the years, the band defies neat categorisation. With every album inspiring fresh ideas for the next one, each release is "like climbing a hill, just to see another higher one appear that was hidden behind it." They feel Welcome Joy and Welcome Sorrow is the closest expression yet of their musical vision, "sounding quite different for us - our eclectic influences and musical backgrounds are perhaps more evident, and the album is particularly emotionally charged and more varied in terms of light and dark and in the instrumentation used." Recorded by engineer Patrick Phillips, this album embeds folk tunes on only five tracks, the rest featuring self-penned melodies.
1. I Am The Blaze on Every Hill
This is a line from The Song of Amergin, from the Robert Graves work The White Goddess. "Amergin was the bard of an early race of Gauls called the Milesians. It's an invocation they offered when they were about to invade Ireland and were hit by a massive storm, following which the sea became calm".
2. Blyth High Light
This incorporates the Northumbrian tune The Oyster Wife's Rant and the title comes from the lighthouse situated in the Northumbrian town. There's a rolling, sweeping riff that echoes the wide, rhythmic swing of the light suggesting its bright, uplifting beam.
3. Flying in the Hours of Darkness
This was an unusual line from a pilot announcement during the band's flight to India. The riffs start off as travelling companions but hit sudden darkness and end up spinning off at different speeds.
4. Burning Bridge
Immediately fiery, this track features the traditional tune I'm Over Young to Marry Yet. The core riff ultimately gets incinerated into fragments.
5. And all Through the Winter he Hid Himself Away
A brooding track, that started with a self-composed tune, it's interspersed with moments which seem to burst out from the containment suggested by the theme. The title comes from a snippet of conversation overheard in a Bristol street.
6. One Train May Hide Another
From a poem by Kenneth Koch, who saw these words on a sign by a railway track. The poem talks about how one idea can hide another, something you realise only when the first idea is out of the way. The viola simultaneously provides both tune and percussive groove, the mandolin insistently reinforcing the drum-like beat.
7. Will You Go Walk the Woods So Wild
Built around a traditional English border pipe tune, the title of which informed the wild and restless violin and mandolin riff evoking being in the woods in a storm.
The music is circular, delicate, suggesting the intricacies of cogs within cogs and interrelated parts moving as one, as the Orrery itself represents the workings of the galaxies.
9. The Vapourer
A new recording of the track from the eponymous EP. Like the Vapourer moth, the busy interlocking parts never quite settle.
Incorporating the traditional tune Tulloch Goram, this track is named after the underwater base in the TV series Stingray. The tune becomes engulfed by a big slow-moving riff.
11. Thought Fox
From the Ted Hughes poem likening creative inspiration to a creeping, elusive creature. You have a sense it's there, stalking you, but that it will disappear if you turn and look.
12. Folded in the Arms of the Earth
A line from the John Stewart Collis book The Worm Forgives the Plough about sitting under a tree and feeling part of every living thing. The piece includes the traditional tune The Old Haile Hornpipe which is embedded in the riff, neither taking precedence. The violin/mandolin riff picks up a pulse like a heartbeat throughout the track.
13. The Still Point of the Turning World
A line from T.S. Eliot's Four Quartets. This track has four distinct motifs on piano, cello, mandolin and violin. Each motif is of a different length and revolves slowly around the violin's still drone, so that the combined effect is continually changing.
14. Welcome Joy and Welcome Sorrow
From the Keats poem also known as The Song of Opposites. This track is about stepping into the unknown, and how this makes you feel fully alive, because to do this you have to be open to anything you might find there. The tune is played on viola and accordion; the door opens, and they step through.
- If you ever needed a reason to go to WOMAD NZ, it's Spiro. Spiro show the fundamental language of music and it's ability to take you to a place you didn't know existed. ★★★★ Sunday Star Times (New Zealand)
- The playing is as tight and disciplined and meticulously arranged... ...together they make a unique quartet: skilled and disciplined and sonically full of surprises. Read more" Radio NZ (New Zealand)
- * * * * Welcome Joy or Welcome Sorrow is an album of hidden surprises... Some of the tracks are based on existing folk tunes, but these melodies serve as stepping stones as they are fully absorbed, disseminated and reinvented. Combined with the original compositions it adds up to a unique mixture. Read more All About Jazz (USA)
- Live from WOMAD Charlton Park Festival 2015 Balancing a certain rigour of systems music and folk were Spiro, who were lapping up the adulation of the crowd at the Ecotricity stage. ...they soared amongst the woods, having a ball. Read more The Arts Desk (UK)
- I would run, not walk, to the store and purchase this disc... ...which is to be enjoyed with a hearty tankard of ale, or perhaps some other fine spirits, whichever takes your fancy. Read more The World Music Report (USA)
- Spiro is an English quartet that uses this instrumentation as they ride that artsy edge... ...between folk and classical music on Welcome Joy and Welcome Sorrow. The listener who chooses to ride along this edge will be deeply rewarded. Roots World CD of the Month. Read more Roots World (USA)
- ...a very clever and ambitious collection of arrangements... ...which dodge, dip, duck and dive between original pieces and themes from various English traditional tunes. It has an intricacy and delicacy which underpin what is essentially an exhilarating piece of work which will ultimately define the Keats titled 'Welcome Joy and Welcome Sorrow' as another landmark on the folk map for Spiro. Read more... Fatea Online (UK)
- * * * * * ...their finest studio work so far... Though they're from widely different worlds, I'm reminded of Calvin Harris' electronic hits in terms of the dynamics of build and release in their music, although Spiro are infinitely more subtle... Welcome Joy and Welcome Sorrow is their finest studio work so far, but the power they summon up live makes them a must-see experience. Songlines Top Of The World Songlines (UK)
- They've done it again: welcome joy, indeed. With such intelligent music, just a chord change or tiny shift in the balance can sweep everything joyously or bring it down suddenly - try 'The Still Point Of The Turning World' with its early musii violin style and sound, cello counterpoint and piano triplets like drops of water, or the delicate duet 'Thought Fox' with the mandolin's bell-like patterns brought into order by the violin. There are virtuosity, extraordinary group playing and dynamics on show, wedded to a strong musical vision and a sense of what instrumental composition can achieve. fRoots
- ...it's beautiful like lace or cobweb. Independent On Sunday (UK)
- * * * * "Orrery", at the centre of the album, encapsulates Spiro's musical world: cogs and gears mesh seamlessly; violin, guitar, mandolin and accordion-like planets orbit each other and emerge by turns into the light. The Financial Times (UK)
- * * * * This is a subtle but exhilarating band. ...jaunty and atmospheric workout that constantly changes mood and pace. Elsewhere, they switch from the elegant Blyth High Light, one of several tracks that would make fine, atmospheric film music, to the urgent and driving The Vapourer.... Read the full article.... The Guardian (UK)
- Intense sweeping instrumentals... ...dominated by Jane Harbour's stellar violin playing, conjuring visions of drifting landscapes... Without doubt, it's music of rare beauty. Acoustic Magazine (UK)
- With each successive work Spiro seem to get better... ...building up the emotional connectivity at their collective core. ... At times almost meditational, at others playful this is a record that is totally immersive, drawing you deeper, ever deeper into its musical embrace. Read more. folkradio.co.uk (UK)