Winner of the Parliamentary Jazz Award for Best Media, 2019

by Ian Mann

February 06, 2012


There is a shimmering, lustrous quality to the music that one would expect from such skilled soundscapers. The atmosphere is often glacial but simultaneously hauntingly beautiful.

Eraldo Bernocchi/ Harold Budd/ Robin Guthrie

“Winter Garden”

(Rare Noise Records RNRP013)

My recent review of the Birmingham concert of Time Being, the touring double bill featuring Harold Budd and The Necks caught the attention of Oliver Carr of the Rare Noise record label (home to jazz/prog supergroup Naked Truth whose “Shizaru” is reviewed elsewhere on this site) who kindly sent me a review copy of Budd’s latest release, a collaboration with the Italian guitarist, composer and sound artist Eraldo Bernocchi and Budd’s regular sparring partner guitarist Robin Guthrie, formerly of the Cocteau Twins. Budd has also worked with Bernocchi before on the album “Fragments From The Inside” but “Winter Garden” marks the first “simultaneous collaboration” between all three musicians. 

I first encountered Budd back in the 1980’s when he collaborated with the Cocteau Twins on the album “The Moon and The Melodies”. One of my friends (Shane Roberts) was a big Cocteaus fan at the time and lent me a copy of the album (vinyl in those days) and although I quite liked it it didn’t register that strongly and both Budd and the Cocteaus subsequently dropped off my radar again, pretty much until Budd’s Birmingham show last year. Not that Budd and Guthrie, who continued as a solo artist following the demise of the Cocteaus,  have been exactly idle in the meantime, both have recorded prolifically and have established extensive discographies.

Pianist and composer Budd broadly fits into the avant garde/minimalist/ambient categories. Born in 1936 he was raised in the Mojave Desert and began composing in 1962. An influence on, and collaborator with, the Cocteau Twins he also famously worked with Brian Eno.

“Winter Garden” comprises ten short, frequently beautiful pieces. There is a shimmering, lustrous quality about the music that one would expect from such skilled soundscapers as Budd and Guthrie and a cinematic quality that perhaps has its roots in Bernocchi’s work as a film composer. Born in 1963 the Italian is involved in a wide range of experimental projects including the long running group Sigillum S and collaborations with the American bassist and producer Bill Laswell. He is also a co-founder (with Giacomo Bruzzo) of the Rare Noise record label.

Opener “Don’t Go Where I Can’t Find You” features Budd’s slowly unfolding minimalist piano (not dissimilar to the style he played in at Birmingham)  above a shimmering backwash of ambient guitars. “Losing My Breath” has a darker, film noirish feel with eerily twanging guitar, glacial piano and a ghostly, glitch punctuated, ambient backdrop.

The title track veers between the lush and the chilling with sparse piano chording and a layered guitar backdrop. “Entangled” varies the approach with an insistent bass pulse which acts as the fulcrum for the densely layered guitars and keyboards that congregate around it.

“Harmony And The Play Of Light” takes wisps of piano melody and wraps them in an all embracing sonic backdrop. I’m writing this a couple of days after the heaviest snowfall of the winter thus far and this track conjures up images of swirling snow flakes and the way the light dances around them.  “Heavy Heart Some More” is darker and more sinister in texture with Bernocchi’s judicious use of electronica complementing Guthrie’s guitar atmospherics. Continuing the winter analogy it seems to summon up the austere, isolated, vaguely threatening beauty of a polar landscape.

The clangorous open guitar chords of the echoing “White Ceramic” conjure up equally chilly visions, perhaps this time of deep space. “Stay With Me” initially sustains the mood with it’s sepulchral drones but hope eventually emerges in uplifting snatches of piano and guitar melody followed by a synthesised rhythm as the album embraces an almost conventional pop/rock sensibility for the first time.

The ambient drones of “South Of Heaven” return us to more familiar territory and the album concludes with the lovely “Dream On”, which adds spectral layered voices to the sonic palette to create an appropriately ethereal effect. 

“Winter Garden” is impressive in the way that it builds and sustains a mood throughout each individual track and throughout the album as a whole. It’s an apt title, the atmosphere is often glacial but simultaneously hauntingly beautiful. All three musicians are experts in this difficult to define area of sculpting sound, nuance, colour and texture. My review copy came with the minimum of information but I suspect that each of these seemingly carefully sculpted vignettes are in fact largely improvised. It may, however, also be that a substantial degree of editing has gone into the final production process.

Despite the element of improvisation this is emphatically not jazz. Listeners looking for anything resembling conventional swing are best directed elsewhere. For myself I have to say I liked it, much of the music is rather lovely and there’s considerably more going on than the superficially calm surface might suggest. “Winter Garden” won’t be for everyone but readers of The Wire, listeners to Late Junction, and curious rock fans who have followed Guthrie since his Cocteau days should find much to enjoy. Likewise anybody reared on Eno, David Sylvian or vintage Krautrock plus all card carrying fans of contemporary ambient/minimal/experimental music. 

Recommended, but only for certain listeners. 

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