Songs From Under The Floorboards: Inner Winter By Gentle Stranger

With distant sleigh bells and creaking field recordings, Gentle Stranger bring a seasonal mood to a suite of stark, intimate songs, finds Patrick Clarke

The first time I saw Gentle Stranger was on one of the hottest days of last year, when the claustrophobic London heat reached such a level that it went past discomfort, past climate dread, and tipped me over into all-out mania. The back room of The Shacklewell Arms pub where the band played – always a tight squeeze anyway – melted into a pool of sweat, members of the crowd blurring at the edges and morphing in and out of one another. The band performed music to match, a chaotic and bizarre and often stupid mix of thrash metal, noise, folk and honking brass. Memories are hazy, but from what I recall Tom Hardwick-Allan almost certainly performed in gibberish through a corded telephone that dangled from the ceiling, dressed in an inflatable beefcake six-pack. His bandmate Alex McKenzie played what must have been upwards of two dozen different instruments; each time they picked up another, I recall the eyes and mouth of a person stood near me widening slightly more, until by the end of the show they resembled something out of Looney Tunes.

The second time I saw Gentle Stranger was last weekend, for a playback of their new album Inner Winter. Sub-zero temperatures the previous night had seen a winter bug harden into the kind of relentless hacking cough that I fear will last until spring. It took place in the basement of the Horse Hospital, the Georgian stables tucked into a Bloomsbury mews, accessed via ramps that still retain the hardwood slats inserted to prevent horses from slipping. Where the Shacklewell Arms had been a bacchanalian swamp, here was a place of refuge, a subterranean shelter from the cold. There, Gentle Stranger had set up something akin to a child’s fort constructed from bedsheets, under which Hardwick-Allan and McKenzie were sat, backlit so we could see them only as shadows, miming to the record as it was played back and displaying the lyrics on the sheet using a slide projector. Where that first gig last summer had been almost aggressive in its manic extroversion, this was entirely the opposite – the band presented as shadows, quite literally, of their former selves.

The music of Gentle Stranger is the kind that seems to tap into something elemental, a band who are not so much without a genre, but operating at a level where the very idea of genre is anathema; they make music purely as is required. If that means stupidity and chaos, as it did last summer, so be it. If every ounce of that needs to be abandoned in favour of the total starkness of Inner Winter, so be it. And this, tonally, is a record defined by starkness, by distant field recordings, melancholy drones, acoustic guitars and plaintive vocals. Lyrics are stripped of all irony, appearing as either simple and unadorned statements, or as beautiful and meandering stories, like ‘Two To Carry’, one of a number of songs featuring guest vocalist Martha Skye Murphy.

This, then, is a ‘winter’ album in the purest sense. Gentle Stranger augment it with seasonal tropes, the distant sleigh bells amid the creaking field recording that makes up ‘(searching in the snow)’, for instance. And yet, I don’t see it as a record to be dusted off once a year as the calendar turns to December, and put away again in the spring. This, crucially, is a record that ultimately depicts an inner winter, more than an outer one. It takes wider themes one associates with the season – of hibernation, transition, and particularly death – that, depending on one’s mental state and lived experiences, can arise at any time. This year, my own winter has been defined not by festive cheer, but by an onset of depression, physical illness, personal stress and a deep desire to give up and hide under the covers. I believe it’s this that is behind my deep connection with this record, not the fact that it happens to just be a cold December.

‘Kestrel’ (which, notably, was previously released in an entirely different and less wintery form for 2020’s Love And Unlearn) narrates the story of a sick bird that Hardwick-Allan was ultimately unable to nurse back to health. It is not hard to extract a deep sense of grief from the record’s title track, either. “Lately I’ve been wishing I was deep underground,” Hardwick-Allan sings to sparse acoustic guitar. The way they staged the listening playback at The Horse Hospital, as shadow people, hiding away under bedsheets in the basement, feels notable, as does the imagery of an accompanying video for ‘Kestrel/Inner Winter’, where Hardwick-Allan and McKenzie are painted pale and corpselike, letting themselves be buried in the artificial snow. The music on Inner Winter delves often into territory befitting these transitional and unknowable inner spaces between life and death, consciousness and hibernation, grief and clarity. Some sounds in the field recordings are familiar – voices, crackling static – and yet are just slightly obfuscated, pushed out of reach as if delivered in a dream.

For a listener whose headspace might not be so closely aligned to that conveyed by Gentle Stranger on Inner Winter, I imagine that there might be a sense of distance between them and the album, the same way there was that bedsheet barrier during the playback at The Horse Hospital. There, I often found myself looking at the shadows with a sense of longing. I wondered what the musicians’ faces were doing. Were they making eye contact or did that feel awkward in such a small space? Smiling or deep in concentration? Performing the whole thing in character or grateful for the chance not to have to act? When viewing Inner Winter from the outside rather than inhabiting it, it can be like seeing a loved one in a mire of depression whose communication is sluggish and blunted.

And yet, the communication is still there; flickers of openness and communion like those lyrics projected onto the side of the bedsheets. The video for ‘Kestrel/Inner Winter’ is a mixture of that aforementioned deathly imagery, and behind the scenes footage showing the band and their collaborators as they go through the simple intimacy of artistic creation. Then, there is the last song on the album, ‘Love Me Like That’, where Gentle Stranger emerge entirely from their cocoon and join a choir of friends and collaborators who sing a titular refrain – “Come on, love me like that” – again and again, to no fixed rhythm or melody, ending only when this occurs naturally, in a manner akin to Gaelic devotional psalm singing. In The Horse Hospital, for this song McKenzie and Hardwick-Allan stepped out at last from under the sheets and onto the stage, the choir forming in real time among members of the crowd dotted around me. Though pre-planned, one assumes, it felt entirely organic, and as more joined in it was soon impossible to tell who was operating due to prearranged plans and who was joining in under their own steam. The sound they – we – made was not happy or sad. It did not banish or intensify the gloom of winter. Rather, it simply made that gloom feel beautiful.

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