Orkney Symphony of the Magnetic North

When someone comes to you in a dream and tells you to make an album about your homeland – the Orkney islands- would you disregard it?

Especially when,  it seems, the the figure who invaded your dreams was none other than the ghost of Betty Corrigall, an Orcadian girl who killed herself in the 1770’s –  having been cast out by her village.

Last year this haunting dream inspired singer-songwriter Erland Cooper to gather together his Erland & The Carnival band mate Simon Tong and singer/orchestral arranger Hannah Peel (of last year’s solo ‘The Broken Wave’ album) to form a new group called The Magnetic North, with a distinct purpose – to write and record an ‘Orkney’ based Symphony –  Of  ‘The Magnetic North’.

The Magnetic North can be experienced live on Saturday at the Stool Pigeon Stage at the wonderful BEACONS festival. Beacons is a fresh art & music boutique festival for the North. Set upon the stunning Yorkshire Dales.

We took a listen to Orkney: Symphony of the Magnetic North and here’s what we thought:

The album starts with the simple piece ‘Stromness’. The word Straum refers to strong currents that rip past the Point of Ness through Hoy Sound – and this introduces us to the sound experiences developed during this whole project.

Tidy and haunting drums start off  the track ‘Bay of Skaill’  together with downwards spiraling guitar chords. Somnolently tender vocals drift, like empty clouds, across the bleached landscape.  Tenderness is found in the spray-like sweetness of the vocals from Hannah. Sprinkles of frosty delicacy flitter around. Like a spring tempest, things busily build up, and the birds flutter back to shelter as the lanterns flicker on.

‘Hi Life’ has a whirlwind pace and a sickly churning rhythm. The tunes loop like coils of rope on a beach of crystal salt. Softly whispered lyrics shine. Spirals of voice hoop and flume in ever increasing circles. And all the time, the wind moans softly through the tides.

‘Betty Corrigal’ – In the 1770’s, in a remote cottage in Hoy, lived a young woman named Betty Corrigall. At the age of 27 years, Betty’s life was left in ruins. The man she had loved, and who had made her pregnant, abandoned her and ran to the call of the sea. The condemnation of the locals, and the trauma and shame of the situation, were too much for the poor girl. Betty decided to take her own life. An attempt to drown herself in the briny sea was foiled when she was rescued and brought back ashore by neighbours. But the respite was brief. Some days later she hanged herself. This song evokes the nature of pain and anxiety of  a woman who finds herself at the mercy of those ever-present,  vindictive tides. The call of the sea was strong, too strong, for both Betty and her lover. The haunting melody leeches into your soul.

‘Radwick’ sounds like the beginning of a sombre service in a stony chapel. Wind plays against the frames of the locked down windows. Moss drips from the alcoves. Damp and fragile vocals linger. This is a world hidden by moisture and regret.

‘The Black Craig’ is acidic, flinty and coarse. Isolated paths worm their way to the darkening summit. Each step is such brutal agony. But the wind and the rain are your fateful companions on this journey to the end.

‘Yesnaby’ is renowned for its sea-stacks and other alarming geological features. Similarly, this piece evokes real emotions of fear and trembling – the feeling of being at the mercy of the full brutality of nature at her most powerful. A power that is so dominant and so ageless that you may never escape it.

This is a distinctly emotional and a somewhat lonely album. But consolation can be found within it’s tranquil seclusion and the serene gracefulness that it offers.

– © Neil_Mach August 2012 –



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