Welcome Joy and Welcome Sorrow

Spiro

Released 10 April 2015

  1. I Am The Blaze On Every Hill
  2. Blyth High Light
  3. Flying In The Hours Of Darkness
  4. Burning Bridge
  5. And All Through The Winter He Hid Himself Away
  6. One Train May Hide Another
  7. Will You Go Walk The Woods So Wild
  8. Orrery
  9. The Vapourer
  10. Marineville
  11. Thought Fox
  12. Folded In The Arms Of The Earth
  13. The Still Point Of The Turning World
  14. Welcome Joy And Welcome Sorrow

Liner notes

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.

Burning Bridge (live at Real World Studios)

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”.

Photo credit: York Tillyer

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.

Listen

Reviews

  • 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)
  • 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)
  • 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 (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. ★★★★ The Guardian (UK)
  • Lightbox

    Spiro

    Released 22 June 2009

    An extraordinarily stirring record 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.
  • 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. 

Further reading

Les Amazones d’Afrique feature on BBC’s The Cultural Frontline

The Cultural Frontline celebrates the music and activism of West African band Les Amazones d'Afrique

Live Review: WOMAD Charlton Park 2018

'The world's festival' delivers another excellent musical feast amid artist visa difficulties.

5 Hip Hop and EDM artists who sampled Totó la Momposina

Classic cumbia songs have been the inspiration for worldwide urban and dance hits.

Stephen Hague on bringing Big Blue Ball to the finishing line

The New Order producer faced the mammoth task of sifting through years of recording sessions.