, August 22nd, 2012 05:12
2012 has been defined for many by the Diamond Jubilee and the London Olympics, with the eyes of the world focused on our scepter’d isle. This increased scrutiny has stirred an incessant dialogue about what makes “us” British. Musically, especially, in the context of the eclectic and sporadically bold iPod Shuffle programmed by Underworld for Danny Boyle's opening ceremony. And although he didn't feature on that soundtrack, I would suggest that you can't get more quintessentially British (well, English if you want to narrow it down), than the music of Hanham’s finest, David Edwards. Recording as Minotaur Shock, he has spent more than a decade marrying the organic sounds of live instruments with the progressive digital elements of sampling and programming - sonically pushing forwards while still remaining true to the traditional sounds of our musical heritage. And isn't that uneasy balancing act between tradition and progression part of what being British is all about?
Of course another thing about being British - though maybe it's not so much nation-defined, more a human trait - is the need to label everything. So the music Edwards made when he first arrived on the scene in 2001 was placed in the wicker basket marked "folktronica"; a term used to describe the output of Badly Drawn Boy and Andy Votel’s Twisted Nerve label in Manchester and, particularly, Four Tet. It soon became a dirty word for the artists branded with it; a lazy catch-all for any music that fused the analogue and the digital. Four Tet managed to shake it by going underground (literally), into the dark, confined spaces of the East London club Plastic People and emerging with a fresh, harder, club-friendly techno sound. But for Edwards, the tag has stuck...
But is that such a bad thing? Folktronica - however clunky the term - is the perfect way to describe what Edwards does as Minotaur Shock. A talented multi-instrumentalist as well as programmer, his adeptness at blending folk instrumentation - acoustic guitars, xylophones, marimba and the flute and violins provided by long-time collaborators Emily Edwards (no relation) and James Underwood - with cutting-edge electronica is unparalleled. It is fusion music, really, as elements of jazz, krautrock, ambient and even indie rock rub shoulders with the aforementioned sounds.
Now, a decade or so after his debut album, Chiffs-Chaffs and Willow Warblers, Edwards lands album No 4, Orchard, and he's got bloody good at this folktronica lark. Rather than trying to escape the limits of the tag, he has instead decided to embrace it. “The word used to bug me,” he says. “So this was my perverse reaction to it. I figured that instead of trying to avoid folk I might as well get in there and see what happens.” The results are nothing short of sensational. For once the ambitious list of influences cited by an artist – in this instance everything from Mike Oldfield, Art of Noise and Andrew Poppy, to Autechre and the Orb - is apparent in the resulting work produced.
Edwards is a brilliant, versatile drummer, equally adept at the propulsive, motorik rhythms of opener 'Janet' (equal parts Steve Reich to Neu!) as he is laying down more funky beats. 'Westonbirt', named after the National Arboretum in Gloucestershire, starts out as straight-up slice of jackin’ techno (explored in a purer form by Edwards under his Principal Participant guise), before a brooding post-rock bassline, duelling banjos and gorgeous twinkling melody take it into another dimension. 'Too Big to Quit' is straight outta the village green, as a cyclical acoustic guitar riff and dancing flute delightfully combine with a buried folk vocal. Field recordings crop up throughout Orchard – “They are mainly there for my benefit, like a photo album,” Edwards explains. So 'Ocean Swell' opens with the sound of Edwards’ beloved bike freewheeling, before he drops a loose, funky break, eventually letting rip a grin-inducing low-end bass wobble that nods to his Bristol forebears. The hectic 'Lending Library' has an urgent rhythm and a midsection that sounds like Donald Fagen having a nervous breakdown. 'Quint' is a playful blast of tribal percussion, while 'Saundersfoot' recalls the mysterious electronica of Bytes-era Black Dog.
Orchard is a career-high. It is music of huge emotional heft, but, like its creator, has a twinkle in its eye. It will make you laugh; it made me cry. Is it possible for a national treasure to operate under the radar? Edwards is fast becoming one. Minotaur Shock – pedalling for glory to an opening ceremony near you sometime soon. Probably the village fete.