Lightbox

Spiro

Released 22 June 2009

  1. The Darkling Plains
  2. A Small Light In The Far West
  3. The White Hart
  4. Antrobus
  5. Shaft
  6. I Fear You Just As I Fear Ghosts
  7. Pop
  8. Level 2 Small Bats
  9. The Radio Sky
  10. Glittering City
  11. Underland
  12. Altrincham Round
  13. Captain Say Catastrophe
  14. Binatone
  15. The Lost Heart
  16. Wolves
  17. Mr. Keys

Liner notes

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 Lightbox, 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.”

Photo credit: York Tillyer

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…?”

Spiro perform 'Shaft' live at Cambridge Folk Festival 2012

Reviews

  • Sophisticated and adventurous The Guardian (UK)
  • 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)
  • 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)
  • 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)

Listen

Further Listening

  • Kaleidophonica

    Spiro

    Released 20 February 2012

    The follow up to much-praised debut album ‘Lightbox’ sees Spiro pushing their ideas and the systems music further than ever before. Intricate and multi-layered as the music it is, the playing showcases their energy as much as their virtuoso craftsmanship. An album where the riffs are just as important as tunes. 
  • 2

    The Gloaming

    Released 26 February 2016

    The Gloaming dwells at the musical crossroads, enhancing traditional Irish music’s rich, melancholic tones with modern hues of jazz, contemporary classical and experimental music as they redefine what Irish music can be. This, their second album, was recorded at Real World studios during an inspired week in December 2015.

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