There was a time, not too long ago, when I found it difficult to listen to anything made before 1972. I had pronounced 60s music dead to my ears and felt like it was a betrayal to enjoy it. Except for The Incredible String Band. Given that they were folk-based, clearly hippies, and that their music was overflowing with a certain childlike whimsy, it didn’t make sense that I continued to enjoy them given the fact that I was trying to cut myself off from my 60s fascinations of earlier days. Yet for some reason, The Incredible String Band, and especially the songs of Robin Williamson, continued to enrapture me. I didn’t hear the 60s when I listened to them. I heard something deeper. I heard some kind of universal musical key that freed their songs from societal context. I heard the drone. What is the drone? The easiest example would be sitar music. The same note or harmony is sounding continuously, hypnotically, throughout the song. In Western music, up until recently, the drone was seldom used, except in Scotland. Those much maligned bagpipes wailed the folk music of Scotland while the drone sat unmoving underneath it all. Perhaps this was why The Incredible String Band were able to use the drone so effectively, why the influence of Indian classical music didn’t sound cheap. Even if they didn’t use the drone for entire songs it still popped up at all times, while Robin Williamson’s voice strained to go against Western melodic conventions and instead soared as if it were a melody being played on a sitar.
So what hath this to do with Richard Youngs? Everything. I’m a recent convert to Youngs so I have no idea whether every other album he’s put out (of which there are apparently hundreds) sounds like Amplifying Host. All I know is that I’m captivated. When first track ‘Furrows Again’ begins I immediately think of The Incredible String Band. Not in the sense that I think he’s ripping them off, or that he’s trying to sound like them, more like I hear a similarity in approach. Youngs, if not outright using the drone, is flirting with it. Quite outrageously. Each song, and each small part which constitutes these songs, seems to contain its own mini-drone. This is not pop music. This is music to surrender to. Music to inhabit.
Even though the instrumentation is traditional, this album has more in common with Aphex Twin’s Selected Ambient Works Volume 2 or Boards Of Canada than the latest offerings from Fleet Foxes. (It’s no coincidence that Boards of Canada claim The Incredible String Band as one of their prime influences). Amplifying Host is the music of repetition. The songs all share a certain feel, a certain approach, and a certain length, except for ‘Too Strong for the Power’ which clocks in at over 13 minutes. With slow, repetitive music it can either fail miserably, or it can take hold so that each minor change feels like a major revelation in the same way that a sudden gust of wind can disturb old memories as late afternoon gives way to twilight. This album definitely belongs in the latter category.
Each song is built around an acoustic finger-picking pattern which is augmented by a wildly atonal lead guitar that seems to imply impending danger. If the music is pastoral it doesn’t paint the countryside as a pleasant place. On the contrary, nature seems mysterious and sinister. There is darkness at the heart of the wood, and a hundred broken-hearted lovers have taken their last breath while plunging into that ice-cold loch which looks so serene to the hurried passer-by. On the last track ‘This Is The Music’, Youngs sings “This is the music of exaltation” and it makes perfect sense. This is music that exalts the closing of the day, worships the dark power that whispers amongst the trees, builds an altar to the hypnotic music of the river. It is as old as the hills yet it is music for now, that could only exist right now. For many it will be tiresome, but for those who can close their eyes and exist within the rhythms of the music this album will be a blessing.
If this all sounds a little too Buddhist for your liking I have only one thing to say. Get lost. You might enjoy it.
(This review originally appeared on Collapse Board)