mermaid kiss | etarlis
album review and artist reflections
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Salt On Skin review
self-titled album review and artist reflections
album reviews and artist reflections
Love Her Madly
review, interview and HTML © Russell W. Elliot 2007
all images © Jamie Field 2007
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Last updated: 06 August 2007
Evelyn Downing (lead vocals)
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The 2007 Mermaid Kiss release Etarlis is drawing significant attention from a broad variety of music enthusiasts as a result of interest that has grown since the band's 2003 self-titled debut album and their close association with progressive rock bands including Karnataka, Mostly Autumn and Iona. Well known artists that guest on the new project include Troy Donockley (Iona) and Jonathan Edwards (Karnataka, Panic Room). Previoiusly Paul Davies (Karnataka) guested on the band's earlier EP Salt On Skin.
Etarlis is an epic 60-minute progressive rock masterwork. Clearly building on the alternative sounds of the band's earlier recordings and Evelyn Downing's stunning vocal excursions, the musical artists have woven in thick soundscapes to illustrate the lyrical story woven by Jamie and Evelyn over the past ten years. Our review is presented below.
We have been on the inside periphery of Etarlis since Mermaid Kiss' last recordings were completed. The band gave us unique access to both the preliminary recordings and opportunities to discuss the music and lyrics on several occasions during our visits to Kington. We caught up with Evelyn just before the album's release to prepare this interview.
Evelyn Downing Interview
Musical Discoveries: The last time we spoke was in 2003 around the time of the release of the Mermaid Kiss album. What have you been doing since then?
Is it really that long?! Well, while the band has been continuing to write and record a lot of new exciting stuff, I have also been busy finishing my degree at the University of Salford and finished my Masters course in London. It has been an interesting time as I have been in various different places, playing with different people as part of my course in popular music and sound recording and other little projects. I have also developed an interest in radio broadcasting and arts administration so my musical horizons and outlook on life have expanded considerably.
Back in 2003, Mermaid Kiss was a three piece, it's now grown. How did this come about and what difference has it made to the music?
I think the band has expanded in response to the music rather than the other way round. As the scale and ambition of each track grew it became apparent that in order to do justice to the ideas more and more of the music needed to be played rather than synthesized.
We have always created a lot of sounds ourselves and Andy does an amazing job with the equipment he has, but real instruments add another dimension to the music. We are very lucky to have found Nigel and Wendy to play lead guitar and woodwind instruments respectively. It also has its advantages when playing live--adding scope to the arrangements.
On this album we've got a couple of guests as well. Troy Donockley from Iona plays uilleann pipes and Jonathan Edwards, one of our longest standing musical friends from the old Karnataka and now the force behind Panic Room, plays keyboards.
Last year Mermaid Kiss released an EP called Salt on Skin.
Yes, it's a collection of six tracks with three different singers, Kate Emerson, Kate Belcher and me. With my time so tied up in far away cities in was necessary to work with other vocalists, something that will continue in the future as it adds another dimension to the music I feel. It also serves as a great reminder that Mermaid Kiss and its music is about so much more than my voice! These are all really excellent tracks that we wanted to release prior to the creation of Etarlis.
It's very different from anything you've done in the past both conceptually and musically. Could you tell us how the Etarlis album came about?
It is. Well, Etarlis is a fantastical land that exists in the heads of Jamie and I. It is a place outside of the restrictions placed on our world by science and reason, with a landscape very similar to that of North Wales. These parameters have been the basis of a story that we have been writing for years but also provided the inspiration for a large number of songs including "Whisper" and "Soundchaser" on the MKA and "Hollow" on SOS. With so much new material being based on the Etarlis story we soon realised that we would very soon have an album of Etarlan songs and so set out to create a concept album, illustrating the story. To capture the scale and scope of this story required some quite different musical ideas and the orchestral arrangements of this album quickly emerged in response to this, as a way of realising our vision of Etarlis.
So what is the outline of the Etarlis story?
Because of the nature of the way the story has been written it is long and complex but here is the basic premise. Two friends, Anna and Gerri at that inbetween time of life after school and before the real world really kicks in, set off on a camping trip in Snowdonia, North Wales. On a particularly wet day of walking they take shelter in a tunnel that leads them through a slate mine. They emerge at the other end to a clear sky and a stranger who sets them on a path that doesn’t appear on Anna's map.
The country they have found themselves in is caught in conflict and threatened by invaders and the story tells of their role in the events that follow, the effect that two twenty-first century girls have on a sword and sorcery fantasy world, and the effect that world has on them.
The girls are separated quite early in the story which allows us to explore twice as many ideas and facets of Etarlis as we could have covered if they’d stayed together. Gerri travels inland through dense woods to a village where she meets a girl called Xanthe, while Anna finds herself swept to the coast, where she’s befriended by Inga, one of the most unusual and important characters in the story. The nature of friendship is a theme that runs through the story – how complex that relationship can be, the divided loyalities of new friendships and old.
There's also a great deal of humour in the dialogue of the story that obviously doesn’t come across on the album, so I hope people will take the time to visit the Etarlis website at www.etarlis.co.uk.
How does the album relate to, or integrate with the book and the Etarlis website?
The album illustrates certain moments in the story, such as their first taste of Etarlis ("Different Sky") and the moment the girls are divided at the river ("Dark Cover"). It doesn't attempt to tell the whole story, we think of it more as a soundtrack to a film that follows Anna’s experiences. The website tells you more about the characters and gives an idea of what is happening in each song. You can also read the opening chapters of the story and see artwork inspired by it. As Etarlis is only the first part of a story we have been careful not to give away the ending just yet!
As with all Mermaid Kiss discs, there's incredible musical invention with lots of unusual ideas going on. Was there a lot of experimentation once you got into the studio, or did you have a good idea beforehand of what you were aiming for?
I think what was so interesting with this album was that we were always working within the conceptual framework which was quite a challenge at times! We didn't work chronologically through the story so we had certain songs that were markers to work around so everything else had to fit. This meant we had quite fixed targets, but as usual the musical content shifted and changed a lot in the development.
Could you talk us through a few of the tracks on the new album? Is there one particular song on the album that stands out as something really special to you?
I don't think there is a single track on this album that I don't consider "special." I think though that "Dark Cover" is quite something and is quite special to me as it incorporates a flute melody that I first played nearly ten years ago, as well as a brand new and quite brilliant guitar solo by Nigel. This song illustrates the time when the girls are separated and for me really captures the tense atmosphere and menace of that moment and the desperation felt by them. "Nowhere To Hide" is another favourite with a wonderful vocal performance by Kate Belcher and an incredible piece of orchestral music created by Andy to illustrate a battle scene. And of course "Qway-lin," which is a simply magical piece of music, our first over ten minutes long, to end the album but not the story.
Is the next Mermaid Kiss CD likely to be in a similar vein or something else?
There will certainly be more Etarlan songs--some are already written--but the next album is unlikely to be a sequel to Etarlis. We are very much looking forward to the opportunity to strip the music back and create some more acoustic based songs and lo-fi loops so look out for that in the future.
With you living away from the band's base, has the way songs are written changed? You and Jamie used to work closely together on the writing.
Very much so. I have taken a back seat with the writing of this album. My role has been closer to that of guest singer for many of the tracks with Jamie and Andy responsible for the musical invention. I have had a certain amount of input but being at a distance means that this has been more advisory than creative!
Which artists and bands do you find yourself listening to most?
The music I listen to varies with my mood but I still listen to a lot of singer-songwriters, most recently the more upbeat writers such as Amanda Marshall, Heather Nova and Charlotte Hatherley. Tori Amos is still right up there and her latest release is currently on my hi-fi a lot, but so are a lot of American minimalist writers such as John Cage and Steve Reich and lo-fi bands such as Sparklehorse.
My favourite album lately though has to be Mellow Garden by Tenfold Loadstar which is an incredibly beautiful atmospheric piece of music.
How important is the internet to you to help with promoting your music?
The internet is vital. Living in the backend of nowhere means that it is the only connection with the outside world. Sites such as this one are a great way of letting people know we exist and what we are doing. As a band who do not play live regularly the internet is an excellent resource for exposing people to what we do and on our website you can hear samples, read about us, see pictures and on the Etarlis website of course you can learn more about the story. This is all information that would be very hard to publish without the internet.
Musical Discoveries has worked closely with Paul Jerome Smith as a contributing editor. Paul's Etarlis review originally prepared for Fyreworks is presented first.
Review 1. It is probably the case that this amazing second album from Herefordshire-based Mermaid Kiss can be blamed (or, more to the point, gratefully thanked) on the band's remote location. As the band's web site tells us, when Jamie Field (guitars, backing vocals) and Evelyn Downing (lead, harmony vocals, flute) were spending long hours in a car travelling to/from gigs and/or the song-writing workshops that they ran, they would break the tedium of the journeys by telling each other stories that eventually became one long tale set in the fantasy world called Etarlis. The story relates the experiences and adventures of Anna and Gerri, two young women from the present day, who unwittingly find themselves stranded in this extraordinary world, exploring the influence the two 21st century girls have on events and the consequences for both them and for Etarlis. The story continued to grow after Evelyn went to university, to the point that it was realised that there was more than enough for an album of the same name.
To describe this album as astonishing would be an understatement. To say that the band's debut album and subsequent EP Salt On Skin could not have prepared us for this magnum opus would, however, be entirely accurate! There are bands that toil for many a long year before producing a conceptual masterpiece of this quality, but Downing and Field along with fellow band members Andrew Garman and Nigel Hooton, plus support from Kate Belcher (vocals) and Wendy Marks (various woodwind instruments) and guest appearances from Troy Donockley (Iona) and Jonathan Edwards (Panic Room, ex Karnataka) have accomplished the unthinkable.
Etarlisbegins mysteriously with a short orchestral piece, "‘Prelude" and represents the crossing of Anna and Gerri from the Outworld to Etarlis and concludes with the swaggering 10-minute symphonic treat "The City Of Clouds (Qway-Lin)" that ebbs and flows, building from a straightforward introduction through the opening song section into fantastic electric and acoustic guitar passages and on to the concluding theme featuring a fascinating keyboard solo. At the end the track fades (usually a gripe of mine!) but I have a feeling that this story has not yet reached its natural conclusion!
In between these bookends we are treated to an arresting mixture of symphonic and ambient soundscapes and the contrasting vocal styles of Evelyn Downing and Kate Belcher. This is a progressive album so we are frequently treated to linear pieces rather than songs with typical verse/chorus structure as the story unfolds with the two girls becoming separated and meeting various Etarlan inhabitants. But I won’t spoil it for you, except to point out that you should note the allegorical nature of some of the songs. This is an album that those of you with progressive and symphonic leanings should not live without. It is absolutely stunning!--Paul Jerome Smith, England
Review 2. While perhaps the lush multi-layered progressive, yet orchestrral, instrumentals were the most difficult aspect of the album for Mermaid Kiss to write and record, we know otherwise. But don't let us sell the instrumental side of this album short. Arrangements are dramatic, orchestral and have dynamic range certain to draw the most out of modern listening equipment with crisply defined highs, lush middles and thunderous bass. The writers had originally envisaged and planned for vocal consistency--with just one female artist singing--across the tracks, but in preproduction had recorded a series of demos with both Kate Belcher and with Evelyn Downing, each vocalist contributing a sound and texture to their respective songs.
Kate's vocals showed significant promise and fit some of the tunes exquisitely. The final version of her three tracks clearly demonstrate the fact. These are, "Nowhere To Hide, "Siren Song," and the everso "Shadow Girl" that bracket the epic five-segment "A Sea Change." Although Kate pursued other interests outside Mermaid Kiss after her original vocals were recorded and was unavailable for additional final vocal work, Jamie and Andy elected to use her original contributions as they better suited the final arrangements for those tunes. Originally working with Evelyn from long distance and on her occassional breaks in Kington, Andy and Jamie were able to draw on Eve's extensive musical experience and tremendous professionalism to finish the remaining vocal and flute parts that breathe life into Etarlis.
The band knew that the epic quality they sought for Etarlis would go beyond Kate's and Eve's vocal contributions. Arrangements were prepared with segments where Nigel would add rocking guitar riffs and where Troy's Uillean Pipes fit perfectly into the overall sound. A special section was prepared for Wendy Marks' cor anglais, oboe and recorders, that also contribute significantly to the overall sound achieved. Listeners will delight with the variety of the material that comprises Etarlis even moreso when they realize the minimalist setting of the recording studio. That such a dramatic and awe-inspiring production can come from The Goat Shed is a testament not only to the individual artists, but the advance of technology where a quiet setting, top artists and digital equipment can product a progressive masterwork.
Etarlis has been in production for several years, with some of the tracks dating back to before the Salt on Skin EP. The artists' dedication to the successful completion of the project is not only a testament to their talent and virtuousity but to their patience and fortitude that has deliverd the masterwork to retail, online and digital music outlets. The album may be obtained through a wide variety of sources including amazon.co.uk and iTunes.
Musical Discoveries first heard Evelyn Downing's stunning vocal work almost seven full years ago with the release of her solo material, inclusion of a track on the Love Her Madly compilation and subsequently the Mermaid Kiss album. In addition to her command of flute, keyboard and guitar, this young woman has a broad range, tremendous power and the vocal creativity of Kate Bush and Tori Amos. We will all certainly look back in years from now at an extensive body of her own work and further recordings with Mermaid Kiss. Bravo!--Russ Elliot in New York
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