July Skies: The English Cold (Make Mine Music, 2004)
At times, the wistfulness of ambient/atmospheric music causes listeners to invoke within their minds scenes that take them far from their current circumstances. A listener pops a CD into their player, presses play, and engages in a journey of daydreaming, oftentimes with little guidance from the artist whose music is being played. In fact, it would seem like an intrusion for the listener if the artist went out of their way to explain the purpose behind their music. At times, an artist can augment hint to their inspiration through a particularly clever title or through some nice artwork, but usually, in the dreamy and atmospheric music we all love to drift off with, the music itself is enough to capture our imaginations. Therefore, when an artist like July Skies (a.k.a. the project of Antony Harding, a member of Avrocar) announces a specific theme to a piece of abstract music, it comes as a bit of a surprise, and perhaps a disappointment. And to top it all off, the theme of July Skies’ full-length release The English Cold (namely, a musical tribute to the airmen who died in World War Two), is so weighty and solemn that I subtlety began to write-off The English Cold as a presumptuous release attempting too much before I even heard one second of the music. “Why didn’t the band just stick to just playing the elegant lite-shoegaze/dreampop music they have become known for? What’s with all the talk of lost lives and heavy themes getting in the way of the music?”
However, with a few spins of The English Cold, my doubts were cast aside. Not only does the overt mention of July Skies intentions of the music enhance the listening experience on this CD, but the band somehow masterfully pulls off a sensitive, beautiful, and haunting treatment of their sober subject matter. Infused throughout the whole of The English Cold are sounds and words that intimate the ghosts of young men who lost their lives in that terrible time. Containing elements that are reminiscent of Pygmalion-era Slowdive (a dreamy atmosphere punctuated by occasional light male vocals), Stars of the Lid (mellow and wistful drones) and Monk (lingering but minimalist guitar lines), The English Cold sets a mood of haunting musings. The first track, “Farmers and Villagers Living in the Shadow of Aerodromes”, for instance, uses a fluid guitar line that flows over what sounds like samples of airmen describing the horrors of war. Another standout track is “Countryside of 1939”, which also uses flowing guitar work that is contemplative and gentle. “Strangers in our Lanes” buries otherworldly vocals in a gentle bed of guitar drones, perfectly creating sonic equivalent of ghosts floating over the countryside. Another definite highlight of The English Cold is “East Anglican Skies”, a 6 minute study in moody drones that fizzle into the dramatic sound of crashing airplanes at the end of the track. Light electronics flourish in “Waiting to Land”, adding a sense of motion to an otherwise hazy mood. “Lost Airmen” is a minute and a half of voices that sound like they are beyond the grave, as melancholic voices lament with only their echoes as accompaniment. “August County Fires” uses a more structured format, presenting a gentle song, sung by Harding and backed by strummed acoustic guitars, delayed electric guitars, and other sounds. The English Cold ends on the wispy and perfectly titled “Faded Generation”, as again barely-there vocals emerge from the light drones.
July Skies have created a mesmerizing tribute to the lost airmen of World War Two that is respectful, beautiful and sober. By using sonic texture through guitars, keys, and vocals, July Skies is able to convey a feeling of the evaporation of the once-bright futures of young men who gallantly gave their lives for their country. All in all, The English Cold is an admirable and highly listenable CD that accomplishes its lofty goal brilliantly. Recommended for fans of Stars of the Lid, Hammock, Monk, Windy and Carl et al.
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