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Arch Garrison
I Will Be A Pilgrim Ben Graham , May 22nd, 2014 10:45

Like starlings startled into flight, there have been a flurry of English musicians in recent years looking to their local landscape for inspiration. From Mary Hampton to Hacker Farm, Hamilton Yarns to Kemper Norton, the Ghost Box crew to These New Puritans, boundaries between folk, electronica, post-rock and classical are dissolved as these acts and others look to divine some personal revelation from the countryside around them, its sometimes troubled history and the calming, soothing properties of open spaces, hills, valleys and fields. Yet this is no Little England-ism, no retreat from modernity into an imaginary, idealised and unspoilt past. Instead, it seems almost a reaction, consciously or not, against the rise of ugly political nationalism over the past ten years; as well as the lingering inheritance of the triumphal Britpop bores and the young, moneyed hipsters dressing like smug country squires, with an irony that becomes less apparent with every passing day.

It is a bid perhaps to remember a different England, of outsiders and radicals, of a gentle wilderness that belongs to us all, a northern European territory that is always changing, always absorbing new influences and throwing up new possibilities. So, for instance, James Brooks' Land Observations project fuses John Fahey to Klaus Dinger in his re-imagining of the Roman Roads that once joined Britain to Europe; while Stephen Cracknell's Memory Band also draws inspiration from the old roads of Southern England, mixing traditional English folk music with electronica, the Wicker Man and a fascination with vanished local customs and traditions.

Ahead of them all, however, is Arch Garrison's Craig Fortnam. As leader and main composer with the North Sea Radio Orchestra since 2000, Fortnam has set the poetry of quintessentially English writers like William Blake and Lord Tennyson to orchestral chamber music that draws on Benjamin Britten and Vaughn Williams, but also the Incredible String Band, Nick Drake, Vernon Elliot, Faust, Harmonia and Tim Smith's increasingly influential work with Cardiacs. Over three albums, the musical settings of existing poems were gradually displaced by Fortnam's own lyrics, and in 2010 he released King of The Down, the debut album by Arch Garrison; ostensibly a trio of Craig Fortnam, his wife Sharron and keyboard player James Larcombe, but essentially Fortnam's first solo release, with invaluable assistance of course.    

His charmingly naïve vocals contrasting with his accomplished playing of the nylon-string guitar, Fortnam's songs on that first album spoke of the London suburbs; where the green spaces grow wider and wilder between the terraced streets, and the anxiety and psychosis of the city is partly assuaged by being able to escape into nature. Four years later the follow-up, I Will Be A Pilgrim, takes us further out; away from the city and out into the country, across the South Downs and the Ridgeway Trail, over Salisbury Plain and on into the west.   

On 'Where The Green Lane Runs' a hesitant plucked guitar circles around two notes, a doorstep apart, like one of the simple, haunting folk songs from Bagpuss transplanted to the deserts of Mali. Fortnam has admitted to the influence of Malian guitarist Ali Farka Toure and kora player Toumani Diabate on this record, and their subtle influence is felt throughout, though not in the sense of any clumsy, tokenistic appropriation. Instead, the nods to Africa seem entirely appropriate on an album sung by an Englishman who yearns to be a nomad, to exchange his castle, suburban house or cramped bedsit flat for the open skies and chalky hills, to "leave a home without a jacket on" and sleep "under a tree where the green lane runs."

Fortnam is Reggie Perrin, leaving his suit and tie behind on a shingled beach and disappearing in search of freedom from the yoke of civilisation. He's William Blake as played by Richard Briers in the style of Tom Good. It's a love of landscape and nature that's appealingly embarrassed and abashed, and far from flag-waving. "It might seem strange to eulogise a piece of land and where it lies," Fortnam admits, where many would not think it strange at all. But then, Fortnam is not singing about the solid entrenchment of identity, but the casting off of it; about losing oneself in order to find a truer home.

It's an escape that is also a returning, where perhaps even music and song must be cast aside in favour of the immediate experience of life. "Sometimes I wish I'd stayed on the land," Fortnam sings on 'Everything All,' as guitar strings tumble and fall like a stream running downhill, joined by James Larcombe's bright splashes of sparingly-employed keyboards. "Song is a mirror, I'll put it away." 'The Oldest Road' celebrates electricity pylons alongside ancient burial mounds, before breaking into a kind of medieval synth-pop that's utterly distinctive. The title track also has a bounce that suggests the theme to some 1970s schools and colleges programme, while the jumping rhythms of guitar instrumentals like 'Vamp 1' recall the pioneering early sixties work of Davy Graham, who fused traditional folk styles with blues, modal jazz and African, Indian and Mediterranean styles to ground-breaking effect.  

On the hazy two-step 'O Sweet Tomorrow' the folk, jazz and country influences, as well as Sharron Fortnam's Jacqui McShee-like guest vocal, subtly suggest classic Pentangle. But there's a hint too of the more introspective work of Ray Davies, which also colours the biting but resigned 'Other People' and the generous, imploring 'Six Feet Under Yeah' which advises, "Don't be dissatisfied, keep your eye on the prize; create it then get it out." Ultimately though, I Will Be A Pilgrim sounds utterly contemporary and timeless. It captures the moment of its creation even as it yearns to disappear. "You'll never find me; I hope you wouldn't look," as Fortnam sings at the album's beginning. But this album is worth finding. You might find something of yourself within it, too.