We became aware of the exceptional talents of Ben Walker the moment he applied subtle, inventive guitar accompaniment to Josienne Clarke’s mesmerising voice. His arrangements, particularly with the chamber music themes on the majestic 2014 album Nothing Can Bring Back The Hour, instantly marked him out as a serious musician and producer with the armoury to take the music forward in imaginative ways.
This, his first solo album, achieves something of a landmark in his quest to mine ever deeper the riches of the English tradition in particular as he explores, re-imagines and in some cases re-invents field recordings from the EFDSS library. This is not a few licks of paint or even a demonstration of acoustic guitar virtuosity; Walker’s research (which he describes as a “treasure hunt”) stretches not only to intense research of the original material, but the times, the back story and the people involved. The title is taken from the notion that wherever you look today, you will find echoes of the past.
To this intent he draws on wide experience of music of contrasting vintage – from classical to electronica – for a thoroughly beautiful array of settings, with Kitty Macfarlane, Laura Hockenhull, Bella Hardy, Thom Ashworth, Jinwoo, Laura Ward and Hazel Askew among those co-opted in to provide empathetic vocals. Thus it glides eloquently from Walker’s guitar opening Afon (Welsh for ‘river’) through William Blake’s The Ecchoing Green (a lovely, inviting vocal from Thom Ashworth), a 1960s clip of a ninety-year-old George Maynard singing A Sailor From The North Country that segues emotionally into an 18th-century tune he’s titled Rings to a setting of a Mary Elizabeth Coleridge poem sung by Hazel Askew.
And so on: music with its roots in ancient times, but presented in the form of an engaging journey discreetly augmented by synths and strings, with so much thought given to programming you curse the iTunes society and want people to listen to it as a complete entity to get the full benefit. But whichever way you look at it – lovely singing, great guitar, deep songs or a profound statement connecting past and present – it sounds very special. Hear a track opening this issue’s fRoots 73 compilation.
Main pic: Ben Walker (Judith Burrows)