This latest back-and-forth on Spirit of Cecilia is dedicated to discussing the new Sanguine Hum album, A Trace of Memory. Join Editor-In-Chief Brad Birzer and Arts Editor Tad Wert as they discuss this fine collection of prog tracks.
Brad: Tad, we’ve been blessed with an abundance of prog for and in the second half of 2020. COVID has its advantages. Not many, of course, but it–or, at least, the resulting lockdown–has manifested itself as great works of prog art! Just goes to show that even the nastiest things have their silver lining. I really enjoyed your review of Sanguine Hum’s latest, A Trace of Memory, and I’m wondering if we could talk about it a bit more.
From my perspective, this is pretty much a perfect album. I think at one level, the music is simply fantastic–the flow, the energy, and the complexity. I think at another level, though, the vocals are sublime–in tone as well as in content. Sadly, I don’t have the lyrics in front of me, but they sound quite good.
Tad: Brad, I am so glad you chose this album for a dialogue. I enjoyed listening to your guest appearance on the Political Beats podcast covering the post-Peter Gabriel years of Genesis, and in it you stated that you considered A Trick of The Tail a perfect album. I agree with that assessment, and I agree with your calling A Trace Of Memory another perfect album! They are very different in tone, yet each is a perfectly sequenced, composed, and performed work. Where Genesis is more romantic – Ravel or Debussy-like – in their approach, Sanguine Hum comes from a more quirky and playful tradition – I am reminded of Stravinsky or Satie.
I have loved Sanguine Hum’s music since their debut, Diving Bell. They have a knack for writing songs that are lengthy time-wise, yet never seem over-long. The 13-minute “The Yellow Ship” is a great example of this. My interest never flags for a second as I listen to it, and I have listened to it many, many times!
I think Joff Winks, Matt Baber, Brad Waissman, and Paul Mallyon (with Andrew Booker on two tracks) have an extraordinary amount of sympathetic understanding as they play. As I listen to this album, I don’t hear individuals playing music together; I hear one entity producing a glorious, melodic sound – that flow, energy, and complexity you mentioned.
Brad: I’d not made the connection between Stravinsky and Satie and Sanguine Hum. I think you’re absolutely right, and I think it’s an excellent connection.
I’d be really curious to know how these guys write their music. Do they each throw a piece in, thus forming a whole? Or, does one member of the band compose things and allow the band to fill out that composition? Or, do they just start noodling in the studio and then see how the songs emerge, spontaneously?
Whatever technique the band uses, it works, and it does so very well.
The intro track, “New Light,” especially lays out the tone of the album, pulling the listener into not just the song, but into all of A Trace of Memory.
But, it’s the second track, “The Yellow Ship,” with its plaintive vocals that so appeals to the listener. At least to this listener. It’s the best track of a perfect album.
“Thin Air,” track four, reminds me a bit of mid-period Radiohead, but, ultimately, proves more interesting than Radiohead.
And, just when the band sounds like it might become imitative, it deviates and takes us into a new direction. A perfect example of this deviation comes in track five, “Unstable Ground,” with its peculiar time signatures (that fit the title of the song) and ominous vocals.
One of the shortest songs on the album, “Still as the Sea,” actually feels as though we’re adrift in a boat, especially with the jazzy keyboards and guitar.
The driving power of track seven, appropriately entitled “Automaton,” is relentless.
Stepping back, though, I have to scratch my head. Just what is it about this album that works? Some of the appeal of the band comes from the distinctiveness of the keyboards and the guitar, as well as the intricacies of the drums and bass, but especially in their mutual interplay of all four on the album.
Yet, for me, it always comes back to the melancholic vocals with Sanguine Hum. They’re good enough as a band to be purely instrumental, but who would waste those glorious vocals?
Tad: According to the press release, keyboardist Matt Baber says they wrote all of the music quickly in the summer of 2018. All of the songs credit Winks, Baber, and Waissman as writers, so I’m assuming it’s a joint effort, perhaps stemming from jam sessions.
I agree that “The Yellow Ship” is the standout track; it may be the best thing they’ve ever recorded. I had not caught the Radiohead influence, but now that you mention it, it’s obvious!
For me, Sanguine Hum has a unique combination of a jazz/art rock sensibility and wistful vocals, courtesy of Winks. He is definitely not a thunderous vocalist bellowing out high notes over crunching metal accompaniment. And yet, the gentle, almost hushed timbre of his singing conveys a lot of power. As a teacher, I’ve learned the trick of speaking quietly to gain and hold my students’ attention, and Winks’ vocals do the same thing for me.
As you said at the beginning of this conversation, 2020 has been an amazing year music-wise: Bardic Depths, Days Between Stations, Kyros, Gazpacho, Glass Hammer, and now Sanguine Hum have all released incredible albums. Spirit of Cecilia is going to have some interesting “Best Of 2020” lists!