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Spaceship
Outcrops Ben Graham , May 30th, 2019 18:54

In the summer of 1970, Pink Floyd were advertised as headlining the inaugural Yorkshire Folk, Blues and Jazz Festival at Krumlin, high on the moors overlooking the Ryburn and Calder Valleys. They never turned up, and the festival was a disaster, cancelled two nights in after a freak storm and high winds devastated the site. Up till the last minute, announcements insisted that the band were on their way, but were delayed by fog over the English Channel.

Echoes of that fogbound Floyd, and the ghost of the set they never played on the windswept Yorkshire moors, seem to haunt this debut vinyl LP by Spaceship, AKA Todmorden-based Mark Williamson. Its four lengthy instrumentals are named for rock formations above the Upper Calder Valley, and are based around field recordings made in those very locations. Editing and post-production took place in Williamson's home studio in the valley below, meaning that more than anything this is a record grounded in a definite sense of place.

Spaceship's music has always reflected the environment it was created in. Previous CDs and digital recordings (including his 2008 collaboration with Julian Cope) charted Williamson's 12-year sojourn in Essex, a landscape with its own distinctive beauty and character. But it's in the millstone grit of Calderdale that Williamson seems to have truly found his muse, and Outcrops sees him forging a deep and lasting relationship with this often austere but ultimately enriching corner of northern England.

Although primarily a vinyl release, Outcrops is an excellent record for walking to. On 'Whirlaw Stones (Delta)' the droning synthesiser waves conjure something spectral and eerie, stretching out like the wide horizon, the sky above the moors, the pale sun cossetted by gathering clouds. The layering of tones evokes an earthy, lo-fi sense of wonder at the creation of this landscape through vast geological epochs, at the same time as it suggests the incidental music from the original BBC production of The Hitch-Hiker's Guide To The Galaxy.

None of this is accidental (except maybe the Hitch-Hikers bit). The music on Outcrops reflects both Williamson's interest in geology and a very specific walk, crossing Bridestones Moor between Todmorden, Lydgate and Cornholme. On 'Orchan Rocks (Basin)' the sound of wind and incidental noise penetrates the tone poem of the music, at first suggestive of a bubbling brook before it takes to the air and becomes a wordless hymn of flight, punctuated by the offhand comments of a cawing crow. This is a sombre, reflective piece, ghostly and riven with a distinctly northern melancholy.

On 'Hawk Stones (Forest)' I think of Kenny Carter, the doomed local speedway ace whose family farmed bison on moors close by, as a stripped-down 500cc motorcycle seems to lap distantly from one speaker to the next. And then there's William Holt, the Todmorden author, painter and communist councillor, a Blakean figure who crossed Europe with a retired rag-and-bone horse like some working class, West Yorkshire Kerouac. His 1959 self-published novel, The Wizard of Whirlaw, shares its name with a sculpted head that stands high on these moors, guarding and watching over them.

The final track, 'Bride Stones (Glacier)' is dominated by an ominous electronic roar that dissolves at the midpoint into fragmentary sheets of sound. Different images rise up to explain what you're hearing: the bells of drowned churches still tolling from deep below the reservoir, or the high mystery of the stones themselves, singing with the vibrations that will eventually topple them.

The parallels with Pink Floyd stand. In 1970 they had a very particular sound, one they would later disavow: droning, sparsely melodic, hypnotic and genuinely experimental. In a parallel universe, performing against the elements on these windswept West Yorkshire moors might have inspired them to go even further down that path. In this reality, 39 years later, Spaceship has tapped into those same earth energies to give us something even better.

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