If you would have suggested to me that I would be writing about a concept album based on Richard Bach’s novel ‘Jonathan Livingston Seagull’ then I would have probably thought that I was getting a bit too pretentious in my old age and may well think about quitting. That is until I actually heard the Edgar’s Hair double album featuring a 100 minute cycle of music that, well, is just sublime and stunning in its execution.
Before that, however there are a couple of introductions I need to make. First the band. Edgar’s Hair are a three piece from the Netherlands and Czech Republic, comprising Hans Brussee (guitar, vocals), Leon van der Leer (drums) and Leo Zwaan (bass) who have been in the likes of I$I$, Oak and Rumbone (Edgar’s Hair is the title of an I$I$ album) and are influenced by the likes of Soft Machine, King Crimson, Mogwai and Sigur Ros… a strand of music that you can both understand and respect. Moreover it is a provenance that sits on that tricky line between experimentalism and accessibility. This, I think is the secret of this album; that it is not just abstract experimentalism, neither is it some sort of mainstream ‘vanilla’ musical or rock opera… rather it is a well thought out and well played set that is both out-there and coherent.
The second introduction is to Bach’s book. I’ll confess straight away that I have not read ‘Jonathan Livingston Seagull’ so here’s what Wikipedia says:
The book tells the story of Jonathan Livingston Seagull, a seagull who is bored with daily squabbles over food. Seized by a passion for flight, he pushes himself, learning everything he can about flying, until finally his unwillingness to conform results in his expulsion. An outcast, he continues to learn, becoming increasingly pleased with his abilities as he leads a peaceful and happy life.
The book is divided into four parts (although the fourth part was only added forty years after the book’s initial publication in 1970), from which Edgar’s Hair map the story onto four sides of vinyl respectively entitled ‘Awareness’, ‘Conflict’, ‘Succeeding’ and ‘Emptiness’. Reading through a few commentaries on the book (I’ve already committed myself to actually reading it when I can get a copy) it strikes me that the story is very much influenced by Buddhist thinking, and there are a number of more overt Buddhist interpretations of the story. Certainly the fact that the fourth side of the album is called ‘Emptiness’, the Zen term for ‘salvation’ would suggest that they are also of this mind.
OK so those are the introductions let’s get down to the music itself. The ‘Awareness’ side begins with ‘Glittering Heights’ a dark and atmospheric track which immediately sets out the band’s ambition to create a piece of art that goes very deeply into the story while at the same time providing a self-standing piece of music that would certainly be appreciated by fans of the bands mentioned above. Although there are wider influences evident in this work stretching into contemporary classical and jazz. ‘Glittering Heights’ has a lot of space in it, enabling the listener to settle into the music. There are certainly elements of space rock to this track with a slow burning beginning that gradually releases us onto a journey into the unknown.
Helpfully the album has it’s own website where, for instance, you can see what instruments are being played on each track. Here you see that around the basic trio of guitar, bass and drums lies a myriad of instruments, including such as dung chen (Tibetan long horn) and small Balinese gong (30cm) which adds to the atmosphere of the track and takes us out of the everyday.
By the end of ‘Glittering Heights’ we are in full flight as we head on into ‘Black Ocean’ an intense song that once again takes a much darker interpretation of the book. On one level it feels like a lament, and yet the use of such as sitar and tabla give it a more spiritual element… close your eyes and you can imagine being in flight, but not in a way that suggests freedom. The final part of the ‘Awareness’ side is ‘Vanished into Empty Air’. ‘Awareness’ is essential for salvation in Buddhism and the achievement of it is transcendental. This, I think, is what is being expressed here. There is a soft otherworldly feel to to it, which is performed by Brussee alone (and recorded live) and perpetuates this feeling of sorrow and grief. There is something sparse and melancholic about this track which similarly draws out your emotions, which I guess is how awareness is formed.
On to the second side, ‘Conflict’, which as you may expect takes a more upbeat tone. ‘The New Sun Sparkled Gold’ rocks out right from the start with its heavy beat and sharp guitar work. Underneath that is a heavy synth beat until the band break out into a groove that hits the spot with an early 70’s sort of prog feel that takes it the likes of Crimson and Pink Floyd. This is a soaring and optimistic track which washes away the the introspection and darkness of side one, at least for a moment as the band segue into ‘The Gull Who Sees Farthest Flies Highest’ which has elements of Krautrock and inculcated the feeling of exploration as it breaks out into a rhythm that seems almost conventional by the standards of the album. Here Edgar’s Hair bring us back to the accessible from what are some moments that have been quite difficult to listen to.
Then it is back into the unconventional again with ‘Through Solid Air’, which conjures up a sense of both loss and being lost… of inner conflict… of being alone… a child’s voice occasionally breaking through the torment. Then the sound of a sea gull takes us into ‘Speed of Life’, the final part of the ‘Conflict’ side. This is a track that has a real groove to it through Zwann’s bass which really drives the number. The use of a stylophone here gives the track a certain earthiness, while the overall feeling is of moving on. There are more elements from rock history than you could meaningfully describe in a even this long appreciation of the album. But as ‘Speed of Life’ builds inexorably towards its conclusion you get a palpable feeling of excitement and achievement as this epic reaches it mid-point…. concluding with a single beat that suggests a certain balance has been achieved.
The third part of ‘Jonathan’s Dive’ is ‘Succeeding’ and this kicks off with ‘Banished to a Solitary Life on the Far Cliffs’, another live solo performance by Brussee. As you would expect from this title, it moves us to a more introverted place reminiscent of the earlier ‘Vanished into Empty Air’. It perhaps suggests the need to take stock at different parts of our journey as it flows naturally into ‘Floating Time’, which retains the sparse meditative approach before some rather Floyd-like vocals which takes the music out of the abstract into one of real experience “floating and drifting/ drowning and grieving”.
After that the title track comes in with a solitary piano which is interspersed with the sound of the protagonist lamenting his fate before a storm strikes and the rain comes to symbolically wash away the past. From there there is a feeling of renewal, but also of defiance as he sings “I fly on broken wings/ it’s so heavenly up here”. From this point the ‘Jonathan’s Dive’ takes off with a sonic rocket booster that takes us, and presumably the protagonist, onto a new level. It’s like breaking out into a new dawn from heavy fog as the band rock out before falling back to a single piano briefly at the end, what a track!
The final part of this movement is ‘The Messenger’ which once again finds us into the realm of the introvert and abstract. The use of a theramin together with a number of ‘Eastern’ instruments here gives the track a really dark and sinister atmosphere, while the trumpet here conveys the feeling of melancholy. We once again get the feeling of being alone, of isolation, something that we are wrenched violently from with the short but striking ‘God’s Plan’, which begins the ‘Emptiness’ side… comprising this and a four-part piece entitled ‘Stratosphere’, the first part of which Brussee and van der Leer recorded live as a sort of meditative overture with lots of echo and related voices which sounds like they are influenced by Tibetan Buddhist chanting, but could also be placed in some of Stockhausen’s vocal works.
The etherial quality of the music is continued into part two with the use of Japanese and Yunnan singing bowls, Yunnan singing bowl, Chinese wind gong, small Chinese opera gongs, water and thin Vietnamese alarm gongs (15 cm). These combine to give the music a stillness, a feeling that it is being played by the elements rather than people. In this sense there is something detached about this… and yet there is also a sublime beauty to it… to just sit with it and consider the nature of things. As Edgar’s Hair move into the third part of this epic within an epic you hear the sort of Kraut rhythms that the likes of Electric Orange have also made their own. Here though the vocal narrative takes us away from concentrating on that and back onto the story. Like many parts of this album the contrast between the different parts of it is huge. Yet they feel coherent as you move from one part to the next.
To do this though you need time and concentration. This is not an album you really put on while you are doing something else. Rather you need to sit with it to appreciate its scale and purpose, and as we move into the final part (a remix of ‘Black Ocean’) with it’s waves and ‘Bengali Voice’ you really feel that you have come to the conclusion of a journey. A journey that has at times felt challenging, emotional and all encompassing. A journey that you are glad you have taken and, like the book itself, aims to leave you in a better place from whence you started.
‘Jonathan’s Dive’ is a beautiful and profound piece of work that is clearly a labour of love for Edgar’s Hair. Explore the album’s website, and hold the gatefold sleeved album with it’s fixed insert and you see how much thought and time has gone into this tour de force. It is not an album you want to listen to lightly, but if you can find 100 minutes out of your day to sit with this atmospheric cycle of songs I would suggest that you will not be disappointed.