christopher james

Poems and prattle

Tag: Somerset

Album review: Dredging by The Levels: Live Recordings and Home Demos

Nothing will quite prepare you for the sound of The Levels. From the opening commotion of birds in flight and what appears to be the Dr Who theme thrashed out on a slack tuned guitar, this is an expedition into the unknown. Notes for Explorers: be prepared!

This instrumental outfit, led by the twangular guitar and singular vision of polymath Darren Giddings, has pioneered its own brand of west country surf. That said, they are not afraid to stray into jazz, alt-rock and Pavement-style rock and roll.

Levels image

Due to the somewhat haphazard track listing (the song titles are buried within a poetic steam of conscious) I am uncertain where one song ends and another starts, but it hardly matters. The album effectively operates as a suite with ecology, nature and localism at its heart.

References to Giddings’ previous musical adventures are apparent in the dogmatic, asymmetric guitar lines, but this band is not afraid of breaking new ground too. Bursts of jazz-infused sax, complex bass lines, rumbustious drums and spoken word sound loops are proof enough that The Levels operate far from the mundane. And they are not adverse to rocking out, with complex signatures bursting out of their introspection into foot on the floor 4/4.

Local concerns, not least the recent floods that so badly affected the Somerset Levels (hence the band’s name) inform many of the pieces. A sound collage made up of media reports cut together is particularly striking and some bad tempered riffing that bookends it hints at their displeasure that the area was somewhat neglected by government.

When all’s said and done, The Levels first recorded outing is a vital, strident, eclectic musical statement driven by a pulsing, hypnotic rhythms. It takes the listener on a journey deep into a mist filled landscape where the ghosts of musical figures past emerge then disappear across the flood plains.  It is as if the Magnificent Seven have been magically transported to Somerset and coerced into musical action by Duane Eddy.  And surely that’s no bad thing.

Find out more on their Facebook page.

Radio Ballads on the M4

Just returned from the wild west; a weekend in Somerset with old university pal Darren and his tolerant partner Ruth who allowed us to drink bath ale and guzzle Bordeaux late into the night. By day, there were magical sights of kestrals flying over the Levels (a sort of west country version of the East Anglian Fens) and Glastonbury Tor in the mists. 

Song of a Road

For the long journey home Darren lent me copies of the Radio Ballads – the pioneering programmes broadcast by the BBC in the late nineteen fifties and early sixties. They are totally compelling – musically and historically. With music principlally from legendary folkie Ewan MacCall, they are social documents of the industries that powered the nation. Each episode focused on a particular world – the building of the M1; the railways and the mines. Songs about their working lives and leisure are interwoven with real voices from the past. The songs are wonderfully incongrous and unexpected; there are tunes about bulldozers and asphalt; about pistons and mineshafts. There are tender, funny, honest and shocking. The music is unexpected too; banjos and guitars are joined by choirs, jazz trumpets and drums.

It was strange driving down the motorway listening to the tales of the men who built them. It was the sort of thing that makes you take the modern world a little less for granted. One of the navvies said his dream was to drive the length of the motorway after it was finished. The Ballad of John Axol – the story of the driver who died saving others on a runaway train is also astonishing.  Seek these important programmes out if you can (try Radio 2). 1