United Bible Studies - The Northern Lights and The Northern Dark (Rusted Rail)

This is another one of those really cute 3" CD-Rs that pop up now and then in the alternative folk underground, this time by United Bible Studies, again on Irish label Rusted Rail. One of the nice parts about this format, cuteness aside, is that because of the limited duration, you really get to focus on a release, being able to play it again and again in a short period.
That's certainly time well spent with this excellent United Bible Studies EP. Like "The Shore That Fears The Sea", which also appeared this year, "The Northern Lights and The Northern Dark" (what a title!) showcases the broadness of this band's sound. These six tracks are a mixture of live outtakes and studio tracks. The improvisational style, which these people pull off superbly, is nicely illustrated by "Bubble of Earth" and "Elbow of Dawn", both captivating and honest instrumental tracks. But the band can also write songs, as proven by "Hedge School Drop Out" and the sweet - but mind the stinging lyrics! - "Pictures of Katia". "Note of Hope" starts out as an improv piece for wordless voice and instruments, and fades into another improvisation with guitar , drums and flute. But, as the cliche goes, the best is saved for last. "Spoon of Haar", recorded live in 2005, is a song woven together of several distinct voices. I hear at least Dave Colohan displaying his considerable talent, along with Aaron of Phantom Dog Beneath the Moon. With minimal instrumental backing in the form of a soft drone, these men put down an extremely touching melancholic piece of vocal art. "Haar" means a special type of fog in a certain Scottish dialect, and it's a well chosen title, for this song would go along perfectly with a teary gaze upon mist drawing closer towards you over the hills.
For a mish-mash of songs, "The Northern Lights..." is a pretty sound release, and it forms the perfect little companion to the equally excellent full length album from this year. Once again, United Bible Studies prove to be one of Europe's finest when it comes to freefolk.
evening of light

United Bible Studies are a group of instrumental performers working in many experimental genres with a mysterious Celtic ethos at the core. Their CD here on the Rusted Rail label is called "The Northern Lights and The Northern Dark", a title that reminded of Norse heathenism and the duality of existence. Even this does not hint at the beguiling strangeness within. Chattering voices and percussion are like a sinister ritual we cannot comprehend. Then we go to "Pictures of Katia" which is one of the most amazing songs I've heard recently, a folk song of wheezing accordion and Celtic whistles with the marvellous singing we associate with Magickal Folk of the Faraway Tree. It has the joy and innocence of The Incredible String Band. Then this suddenly ends and we hear the layered droning voices, throat singing and wind organ of "Note of Hope" which later evolves into an improvised spectral post-rock instrumental. "Hedge School Drop Out" is a traditional banjo and communal vocals folk song that explores the album's title. It's magical, a folk charm in practice, ancient primitive music. A synth joins in playing a 1980s style sound and you can't help but smile at their undercutting of the moment. "Elbow of Dawn" is a shuffling Irish pipe and whistle instrumental, the sun groaning tiredly above the slumbering earth. Almost inconceivably we are already at the last track, the solo singing of "Spoon of Haar", a devotional ballad sung unaccompanied then overlaid repeatedly over itself slightly out of phase each time. The voices merging and overlapping beyond words into electronic waves. Music for a rural community long since lost, only memories of their voices carried in drifting radio signals. As I write this on the TV the stones of Callanish are being shown, somehow it's appropriate, ordained for this moment. The ancient and the new, the northern light and northern dark. Welcome home to a future past.
Mark Coyle/Harvest Home

6 tracks which highlight United Bible Studies' wide range of styles and sounds very well. Their distillation of folk and collective free music is always welcome and, in addition to the songs, there are wordless group vocal pieces which suggest magic(k)al adventures round the fire!
Boa Melody Bar

United Bible Studies is a loose collective of like minded Irish musicians based in acid psyche folk sounds, drone and taking in plenty of avant garde improv along the way too, this six track release on the new rusted rail label comes on a 3 inch cd in handmade card sleeve, this release sees the band take in a bit of traditional english folk with a nod to the early folk sounds of Fairport Convention on the odd track.
Road Records

At a few hushed seconds under 19 minutes, I guess you would classify this new United Bible Studies missive as a mini-LP, though it packs improbable quantities of beauty, craft and oddness into its six compact pieces. 'Bubbles of Earth' is trademark UBS, overlaying eldritch tape manipulation rituals over a weave of acoustic guitar and banjo and sonorous bass depth charges. The reversed vocal invocations are particularly disturbing, calling up dark Lovecraftian Earth magics. The acoustic 'Pictures of Katia' has a sea shanty feel all drunken accordion and Dave Colohan's vocal melancholy and will appeal to those that dig the Magickal Folk of the Faraway Tree aspect of the UBS movement. 'Note of Hope' is a perfectly realised piece that builds from drones and spirit voices to spirited improvisation all in the course of four minutes. 'Hedge School Drop Out' could also be a Magical Folk track, its simple repeated mantra a bridge between two more substantial pieces. 'Elbow of Dawn ' has an appropriate pre-dawn raga feel, and recalls the wonder that is the UBS CD 'Airs of Sun and Stone'. 'Spoon of Haar' is an acapella of ghost voices, as haunted and unknowable as the carved stones around the Neolithic passage tomb at Howth. It's a wonderful conclusion to a small but perfectly-formed work. The Mayan astronaut on the cover is apropos for these explorations, as they continue the journey to find the dream world that exists in parallel with this one. 'The Northern Lights' is a nice dose of new UBS for those who have worn out their copies of 'The Shore That Fears the Sea'.
Ptolemaic Terrascope

Artist: United Bible Studies
Album: The Northern Lights and The Northern Dark
Label: Rusted Rail
Rating: **********

This new 3 cdr from United Bible Studies must be the most concise example of their unique aesthetics. It combines with new unpredictable results many of their various musical approaches: the vocal and instrumental sections (however pointless this distinction may be), the use of different sources (segments of concerts, studio recordings), the fruitful tensions between song and more extended forms as well as those existing between the presence of more traditional elements and a more modal/ droning type of sound.

In addition, it also offers a synthesis of their thematic and lyrical concerns as the songs (6 tracks in total) continue to explore the intersecting paths especially valued by the band between reality and mythology; the drawing of a Mayan astronaut on the cover thus seems quite appropriate.

Whatever the actual nature of these connections, I think that they are always made with the MUSIC in mind, because if there's one thing that truly characterizes UBS, it is their ability as an ensemble to tie all the pieces together without any pre-planned aesthetic or philosophical motto.

The music is SO rich and detailed... and focused that it can be seen as a series of responding musical gestures, none of which can ever be approached as isolated entities. As Gavin Prior (one of the core members of the group along with Dave Colohan and James Rider) said: The aim is to make a song feel like a world in itself not several styles/parts shoehorned together which is what they often start out as.

Consequently, what follows will only be an attempt at making you want to listen... just by catching your eyes, if I can!

The first track Bubble of Earth features delicate layers of manipulated vocal sounds (voice fragments, flutes) over which very subtle percussive patterns (cymbals, bells) are being added. Enters a simple electric guitar line, then a banjo, while the whole thing starts to hint at a more structured melody whose traditional charm may recall something familiar.

However, this ends as soon as it begins to take shape and next is Pictures of Katia the only actual song on the album (and one of the bands oldest). Here, Dave Colohan's beautiful voice is supported by particularly colorful arrangements (voice, accordion, flute, tin whistle, harp) which are able to bring out a certain melancholy from the piece with great simplicity.

As brilliant as it is short, it is immediately followed by the more improv-oriented (in a dronesome kind of way) Note of Hope which starts off with a harmonium drone before giving way to a set of intertwining wordless vocals (complete with harmonic singing). The second part of this piece features a more post-rock instrumentation as two laid-back guitar and bass lines enter a more melodic dialogue that is also sustained by the presence of some very sparse, yet assured drums. A tin whistle can be heard in the background.

The much shorter Hedge School Drop Out mainly consists of repeated acoustic guitar and vocal lines which rapidly turn into some kind of (relatively tense) mantra. It's also in this particular tune that the words of the cdr's title can be heard.

On the other hand, the track Elbow of Dawn can be seen as an exploration of a definitely more Celtic musical sensibility. It begins with a melody played on the uillean pipes, before a flute, a saxophone and some very subtle percussions join in and take part in the creation of an intricate web of carefully assembled wind instruments. This one is absolutely lovely and offers a perfect example of the magic that can be found in UBS.

However, my favorite of them all is the last song Spoon of Haar (the longest track on the album) which features the gentle, high-pitched singing of Dave Colohan against a complex backdrop of ever-shifting vocal drones. It is the most intimate piece on the album and the vocal lines have such a hypnotic quality to them that they're able to display a certain kind of strength which, despite the inherent fragility of the piece, remains all the more elusive as it is highly restrained.

What really makes UBS so unique is that you can truly hear/ feel this sort of communal, almost primal sense of belonging in their music (which is also reflected in their name beyond any kind of religious reference). UBS just belong where they are at a series of crossroads from which a variety of horizons can actually be perceived. This collection of songs is thus a particularly brilliant manifestation of this interconnectedness of things that the band mentioned in a recent interview as well as yet another expression of the endless creative possibilities that lie therein.
- Francois Hubert / Foxy Digitalis

Folk with focus: Ireland's UBS does a lot in just three inches, getting directly to the heart without lingering too long nor exiting too soon. An assortment of six vocal and instrumental pieces ? a shanty, raga, and plenty of psychedelics - culled from various sessions, this album is a collage comprised of what is likely a vast supply of creative peat. The dynamics contrasting each track are only surpassed by the dynamics within each track: voices enter from all directions as drones billow up to overtake them, chimes rattle through mist while the winds blow, carrying the spirit from one song and into another. Very rich, damp and musty - and highly recommended.

The group sometimes work up a gloriously woozy head of mantra-folk - The Wire , September 2006