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Stars In Battledress
In Droplet Form Joe Banks , June 20th, 2014 19:28

When I first glanced at the sleeve of Stars In Battledress' new album, I thought that it showed a grimy close-up of a Victorian mortuary table – closer inspection revealed that it was in fact the corner of an old theatre stage. Both are apposite images for the music contained within: the brotherly duo of Richard and James Larcombe produce a magical brand of guitar and piano-based (and also drum-less) music that skips nimbly between dissected pastoral psych/prog and deconstructed music hall burlesque.

The sometimes eccentric arrangements and non-aversion to packing as many notes as possible into every bar firmly place Stars In Battledress in the same lineage as Peter Hammill, Cardiacs and Field Music, artists intent on waking their audience up from the somnambulant potential of conventional songwriting. And along with their minimal baroque style, their nicely evocative, sometimes opaque, lyrics hint at childhood games, thwarted lives and dark deeds in the corridors of power, all delivered in the well-enunciated and decidedly un-rock voice of the ex-choir boy.

Which makes sense, because the Larcombe brothers' music is also intensely English in an almost ecclesiastical, high church way, its very essence infused with the musty air of a thousand village halls, provincial libraries and decaying baronial mansions. While the likes of British Sea Power, Public Service Broadcasting and the Ghost Box label refer back with varying degrees of nostalgia to a classical vision of Albion, Stars In Battledress often seem to still be inhabiting that past, concocting cheering entertainments for a nation enduring wartime (hence the name).

On saying that, opening track 'A Winning Decree' is perhaps the chilliest on the album, its initial mesh of guitar and piano soon slipping into a hypnotic fugue state, Richard Larcombe's vocal elongated and gaseous like a narcotic mist creeping through the pews of an abandoned chapel. It's also a good example of how Stars In Battledress songs seem to bloom and contract at will, alive with possibility rather than straitjacketed by standard notions of linear composition.

This is artrock with a capital "A", but it's just as playful as it is clever. 'Buy One Now' is a consumerist satire with mocking piano flourishes, like jerky power pop made in the 19th century, while 'Hollywood Says So' is a singalong family hit in a version of history where Gilbert & Sullivan reign supreme in the top ten. They mix up their sonic palette on 'Hunt The Button' with a hurdy-gurdy that recalls Penguin Café Orchestra, words lazily declaimed over keening, dream-like drones, while 'TKS2' rudely explodes into life with tintinnabulous Fripp-esque guitars which intersect occasionally into a geometric cascade of sound.

'The Defenders In The Mill' and 'Unmatchable Bride' continue the delicate interplay between guitar, piano and voice, but tone down the manic inventiveness for the simpler pleasures of beauty, not so much composed as etched in minute aural detail. 'The Women From The Ministry' closes the album in sinister style with its vague hint of synth and nagging lines such as, "it's no good telling me, I shouldn't have been there in their way" giving way to a quietly tense piano and wordless vocal section to the end.

In Droplet Form is a deep listening experience, its dense, discursive musical miniatures tapping into something unique and undefinable (in common with other brothers in sound such as Boards Of Canada and These New Puritans). It's also a genuinely mysterious album – one to literally lose yourself in, like stepping into a haunted room never to return again.

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