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Richard J. Birkin
Vigils Daniel Ross , April 1st, 2016 14:00

If you've ever listened to Rachmaninov's 'Vespers', otherwise known as his All-Night Vigil, you'll perhaps be aware that even the word 'Vigil' carries with it a meditative quality. The definition of the word calls for observance, for a very deliberate type of spiritual focus. Rachmaninov was an owl of a man for whom the musical vigil could've been invented specifically, and so with his Vespers we're given the most contemplative, introspective example of this musical trope. Anyone hoping to add to a rich tradition trumped in modern times by the Russian master must be cautious - and Richard J. Birkin is certainly that.

With his own set of vigils, handily entitled Vigils, composer and multi-instrumentalist Birkin manages to channel the core elements of the genre but also use it as a framework for bigger, more substantial dream sequences. There are five Vigils in total across the album, of varying length, timbre and character, interspersed with these more song-like works that fatten the whole quite beautifully. But it's the tessellation of details within this structure that impresses the most.

Birkin, with his slim chamber ensemble consisting of piano, guitar, strings and occasional electronic augmentation, makes a virtue of simplicity, of fragments that combine to make a whole. Each of these fragments is totally deliberate, all the way down to the tiny, machined clanks of 'Vigil II' which put one in mind of Hauschka's prepared piano. Similarly, 'Atomhog' has a chiming, synth motif, but in the space of minutes it's gradually overtaken by more beautifully swelling strings until that fragment is almost invisible, each building block is essential. You feel that the removal of any one element here would derail the entire sound, which is the essence of good, economical writing.

There is more wide-eyed wonder here than introspection, as evidenced on the whirling, ascendant piano arpeggios and accompanying strings on 'Accretions'. And on 'Moonbathing', when Birkin's voice finally arrives after a lilting and tempered introduction of bucolic strings and guitar, he takes wonder into a darker place. Imagine an even-more-unplugged version of Mogwai's 'Take Me Somewhere Nice' and you'll have the soundworld evoked, but Birkin's take on it is far more deliberately leaden, preoccupied with grimy recollections and smoky imagery. "Now I remember why ghosts like the dark and you don't," he concludes, and you'll believe he's got the experience to make that judgement.

Despite all its religious overtones, correctly interpreted or not, there are ghosts scattered throughout Vigils. They're in song titles, in lyrics, and in the spectral, hovering strings that invade so many of the best moments here, but with a title like Vigils, it's always going to come back to an overnighter in a church. As such, Birkin is, you imagine, a quiet figure in the chapel corner as opposed to a gilded priest standing at the altar, and unlike the towering Rachmaninov Vespers, his sojourn is one that doesn't draw much attention to itself. Like so many of the best things about Vigils itself, it's this humbleness and muted brilliance that make so satisfying.