Waves of electronica accompanied by sails of echoing guitar usher in the luscious new album Walking to Babylon by Comet Hotel’s three performer/composer Maitre D’s, Amanda Thompson, Keith Rodway and Alan Bruzon. Prospective listeners are well advised to make this journey over whatever turbulent seas they may encounter as the shelter from the prospective storm that surrounds them in this shattered age is one of both revelation and aural reward. As the title track will later show, we are all seeking something ill or undefined in the lives we lead, as a possible means of renewal and the personal Babylon everyone carries, which either contains or alludes to their own sense of becoming is one that is ever changing, dependent on need, mood or trouble. This record speaks of such journeys, places and states in an artful and elegant way. It is a song cycle and soundtrack to a mixture of elements and the idea of the Hotel as a house for ideas is as enchanting as it is necessary. Indeed, this collection of ten songs and pieces has more than a touch of alchemy to it, in that it offers what all the best art should do: a sense of transformation and transport, if not from location to location then certainly across the numerous states of being. It is a beautiful record and therefore, if I can be permitted to continue these sketched in analogies, an ideal destination for the prospective visiting listener and resident. The passing of a comet is a way of seeing a tearing or opening of the sky, an act that perhaps unites and reveals all of our respective distances.
The gorgeous shimmer of opening track Riverbed sets the template for this sumptuous invitation to check in. ‘Take me where the water’s kind’ is the call, elegantly voiced by the girlish angelicism of Amanda Thompson’s (of The Big Believe), as if by visiting this imagined and yet strangely realised place, one becomes a representation of the journey undertaken. The effect of songs of this style, of which there are very few – evidenced only in ancient sources beyond western music or in certain ambient and esoteric areas of David Sylvian’s expansive muse – is to construct a beautiful joining of word and sound, each affecting the other, and often at times, changing place.
Two following instrumentals from the film Being Penny substantiate this claim as their specific approach and construction echo a kind of singing through the singular soundworlds created and through two complimentary and thoroughly evocative melodies. An uncanny banjo strum combined with E-bow stylings afford Banjothing a beguiling Eastern air as an arcing Asian style melody line receives electronic treatment to become the snake, charming and staining the very air into which it rises, as opposed to its begetter, and its rhythmic insistence, propelled by Rodway’s gentle and lover like bass playing, enchant and mystify in equal measure. You find a similar very Western style equivalent in the stunning progression within the old Genesis song, Entangled by Tony Banks and Steve Hackett, which on first hearing totally overwhelms you, and the same thing occurs here.
This is enhanced and re-emphasised by the second instrumental, Bolls, which rolls suitably into view on a clang of aptly chosen (or was it the other way round!) steel bowls and bowed mandolin, with an equally snaking melody that this time sears the dream of a wound with the kind of spice and charge that only those seeking the extents of sensation could manage. These pieces are from a film, as well as being musical/sound films in and of themselves and their power, ease and drive speak to the soul and the skin and serve to make the furnishings and surroundings of this particular hotel irresistible.
Arcade features slightly phased or flanged vocals from Amanda Thompson, allowing the angel in her throat a sense of threat as she implores us to ‘not be afraid’, and yet there is something ominous in the songscape around her, mixed, boiled and even curdled by the seismic pounding of Keith Rodway’s 5 string fretless bass and Hotel resident Mick Hutchinson’s trumpeting guitars that soon make all sorts of demands on the attendant staff. From charged ambience to a frenzy of musical activity, here is the Hotel at the height of its powers, all lights flashing and all services on display.
Album title track Walking to Babylon sees the Hotel’s functionality alter and deepen as other guests, residents and passing musicians add to the life and soul of the place in profound fashion. What seemed dreamlike and hallucinogenic now takes on a new order and the Hotel management reveal themselves to be both guides and protectors. Composed by Keith Rodway, this piece taken from another film, Forgivenes, honours the journeys taken and those still to be adopted in a totally unexpected fashion. Bruzon and Rodway move to piano and synth, Thompson arranges and Jenny Benwell’s Viola elegantly houses the classicism and purity of Derek Lee Ragin and Melody Wescott’s vocals. It becomes clear that the view from this particular hotel is ever changing and that the passing or spotting of the comet is a phenomenon affecting all perception:
‘Oh this is all so strange/Love in this lonely place,’ the lyric states and album lyricist Keith Rodway shows a poet’s hand in creating musical and lyrical lines that shine and shimmer off the walls of the place like the frenzy and foam of the sea. It is a stately and beautiful song that shows that beneath ambience and experimentalism, the classic and class retain ground.
Corpus Speculorum washes in like God’s weather, with a musical representation of whalesong and with the scale and gleam of one too. Whispered vocals intone, air is released, e-bow reverberations unseat us, along with bowed bass and piano, securing the notion that what can be heard on the wind can be re-interpreted beyond words. It is one of those pieces of music that joins listener to composer/performer and creates the true musical language common to us all. The blurring of sound and note makes a kind of community of response and once more the Hotel allows such convergence though a mixture of expediency and location. It is a wondrous piece of music reminding me of the best parts of the Sally Potter’s Orlando soundtrack when Fred Frith crests crescendos before falling back into calm. We become aware at this point how skilled these musicians are and how tasteful. There are creating art in the best sense, devoid of a capital A and for its own sake, using music as the sea and source of discovery and thereby conquering the land on which that music is experienced. That land may be reasonably small in terms of execution but its resonance and potential are vast. Here is the sea calling out to rejoin us and here is the land bidding it.
Nail arrives on a skitter of drums and dream pop with Bruton’s chuntering guitar and Thompson’s youthful and beguiling and elegant snarl failing to ‘get you into her bed/ and out of her head.’ The song and title certainly drives the point home as it speaks of a ‘Daily Mail nation / moral masturbation’ and becomes a fine and striking contrast to what we have already heard, as if this Shangri La like location had suddenly received a stroppy teenage visitor, rampaging through the European style corridors, wearing a Man City T- shirt, a buzzcut and a beer. It humanises the dream and shows the skill that’s on offer. There is caviar on the menu with a burger and burp on the side.
Sat Chit Ananda by Hutchinson, Rodway and Thompson has a stuttering guitar figure that distorts a pop approach and has all the sun and swelter of a golden afternoon pouring in through the window as the voluptuous curtains part and Babylon or something looking very much like it sidles its way into view.
Outside In is a psychedelic summer in its own right. A swirling lava lamp of guitar that develops the restrained figure of the previous song and reminds us that from this particular Hotel, all features and views are subject to reformation and change. It is a beautiful piece, unlike anything you may have previously heard but contains enough familiar elements to both appeal and enchant. If I am to extend the Hotel analogy once more I might say that its summation of musical joy is invigorating and restorative and that it creates the impression that having settled in this particular location, it is one you would not wish to leave.
Masks closes the record and reveals Keith Rodway as a master of chamber music. It equals if not supercedes the beauty of the title track as the same ensemble reveal how ‘the wheel keeps turning’ and how in our lives ‘we all keep learning.’ The Masks behind which we actively choose to isolate ourselves from each other are rendered transparent in this particular song and place and indeed reveal this entire album to be an essential purchase and destination, offered by a hosting trio and their attendant associates with the intention of providing answers both solid and sensed to the problems and pressures of day. Babylon is a place through which I have walked. Now I hear it. Close to the hotel stands Eden. And beyond Eden and under the comet’s path, the soul sings.
David Erdos 1/1/18
Watch the video for Walking to Babylon starring Derek Lee Ragin here:
AS THE SOUL SINGS
Walking to Babylon is a career-spanning album by cult South Coast band Comet Hotel. More than just a standard best-of, Babylon shows the band’s eclecticism, its breadth of musical influences and its refusal to take itself entirely seriously, whilst at being – at the same time – entirely serious about its music.
With guest appearances from chart-busting Cuban Boy Alan Bruzon (Cognoscenti vs Intelligentsia, number 4 in the British singles charts, December 1999), British guitar maestro Mick Hutchinson (who once jammed with Jimi Hendrix) and Golden Globe winner, American counter-tenor Derek Lee Ragin (the voice of Farinelli in the 1994 film by Gerard Corbiau), the album fuses Americana, electronica, film soundtracks and neo-classical chamber music with the band’s own unique brand of mutant pop.
To buy the album on CD, please send £6.00 (including postage) by PayPal to firstname.lastname@example.org, and we’ll put your copy in the post. We also have one remaining copy on lathe-cut transparent vinyl, with artwork by Peter Quinnell, hand-cut by Michel Wilson of Bladud Flies! This is one of a limited edition of 5 copies. Price £40.00.