I have to confess, I’ve been waiting for this release to turn up for a good while now. Ever Since Sphelm’s very promising first release Orenda way back in 2014 in fact.
I’ve seen them live several times since their inception back in 2013 in various different formats, and they’ve been nothing short of stunning each time, so , from my point of view, this had rather a lot to live up to.
This project is the brainchild of ex-Cyril Snear frontman Mike McKnight and Tim Powell, although this release also sports some wonderfully groovy bass from Snear bandmate Darryll Clarkson, plus extra vocals from Vicky Kerr, synths from Phil Bretnall and Freddie Baker and trumpet from Barry Godin.
On first listen, this album is based around interesting acoustic guitar melodies, often played in open tuning, with Mike and Tim’s gentle vocal harmonies and an array of burbling synths and electronic beats. This creates textures from open, light and gentle, to cloying, dense and driving.
There’s a great deal of sonic depth in these compositions sometimes only apparent through repeated listens on headphones, the mix providing great separation of the dual acoustic guitars and layers of electronics. I’ve heard a few of these tunes live and it’s incredible the way that they have turned from relatively sparse arrangements for voice and guitar to much deeper, lush, full pieces with the prudent addition of just the right amount of bass and other instrumentation.
The opening track ‘Lingchi’ sets the tone for the album with synths and vocals, morphing into interweaving harmonies from dual, tapped acoustic guitars, much like a taster for what’s to come from the rest of the album.
‘After the Dopamine’ is the first point where the additional bass makes a proper appearance, giving a smooth, heavy counterbalance to the lightness and top end of the guitars. This has taken one of my favourites from the live set and built on it perfectly. As well as the bass, layers of synths fill out the sound creating an intense sonic landscape before a well timed and somewhat abrupt ending.
This segues into an unexpected but very welcome fingerpicked folk section at the start of ‘Stillness’ creating a comforting aural envelope, somewhat at odds with lyrics about snuff movies and burial at sea with Bin Laden and “that Decepticon”. After just over a minute, this moves on to a rather more open and more typically Sphelm arrangement, including the only obvious piece of percussive guitar on the album, although I’m not sure that this isn’t a little out of place at this point in the tune. Live, Mike seems to use more complex patterns for percussive guitar and is extremely accomplished. In comparison this seems a little simple and I’m not sure it adds anything to the track. In reality though, this is probably my only slight niggle about the entire album, and I can be a right fussy bugger at times… From that point onwards the track slowly builds and towards the end, incorporates cascades of acoustic guitar, reminiscent of raindrops bouncing of mirrored surfaces, bright, multifaceted and joyous.
One of my favourite tracks on the album has to be ‘Acatalepsy’ though, starting off with some understated synth lines and xylophone melodies, joined by the now familiar vocal harmonies, breaking down at about the halfway point to mildly overdriven slide guitar, only to be joined by some fantastically funky trumpet (thanks to Barry Godin) and bass combinations which groove their way to the end of the track.
Another moment of note on this album is how ‘Crystal Catcher’ evolves from picked and tapped guitar to some lovely analogue synths and distorted beats courtesy of From The Kites of San Quentin’s Phil Bretnall.
Throughout the rest of the album, Sphelm constantly evolve the sonic landscape, introducing more trumpet, deft swathes of synth work, complex, melodic guitars and considered vocal harmonies. In this case, the cliched difficult second album seems to have entirely failed to materialise. These Roots Know No Boundaries builds on a quality live experience and elevates itself to something distinctly more than their first release. This is a highly refined, well thought out melodic journey and one that distinctly deserves exploring.