Modern Studies – Swell to Great [Song, by Toad]

Modern Studies recorded their debut album in a Perthshire studio named Pumpkinfield, and released it a few days before the annual harvest moon.

This sets the scene for a record steeped in rural folk, which paints lush landscapes of story and sound with its array of instrumentation, ranging from delicate arpeggios of harp to analogue synths and, most strikingly, a Victorian pedal harmonium.


Opening track, ‘Supercool’ leads us in with syncopated drumbeats and the harmonium’s carnivalesque dissonance, which soon smooth out underneath Emily Scott’s haunting vocals, joining a contrapuntal chorus of harp, cello and handclaps.

The harmonic cadence of Scott’s sweetly lilting voice and Rob St. John’s Lancastrian baritone, with its dark depths and resonant inflections of Ian Curtis, is best showcased on ‘Black Street’, where the sparsity of instrumental accompaniment and slow tempo echoes in form the desolate refrain, “so cold”.

‘Black Street’s image of “joined-up writing” takes me back to the title of the closing track of There Will Be Fireworks’ eponymous debut, and there’s a surprising consonance between these bands, with their willingness to experiment instrumentally, but also their borrowing from Scottish folktale, their channeling of rural melancholia that slips between minimalism and clattering musical rapture.

There is something of Mogwai in songs like ‘The Sea Horizon’, which has a relaxed, waltz-like feel, intertwining its prettily twanging guitar with the ambient sound of waves.

Indeed, Modern Studies’ songs bear a cinematic quality foregrounded in Scott’s lyrics, which, like a great Romantic poem, create meaning through evocative images borrowed from landscape and mythology.

On ‘Bottle Green’, Scott works in alliterative couplets, weaving an impressionistic mesh of visual memories: “that bottle green, the deepest dark / the swell of September, sparkling clean, up with the lark”.

The video for ‘Father is a Craftsman’ reflects this sense of cinematic impressionism, comprising of old-fashioned home videos from a bygone era, where images of caravan holidays and family outings to the seaside play out beneath flickers of static.

The band’s DIY, folk aesthetic is embodied in the interplay between narrative and poetic fragments, carried along by the intricate tributaries of its string and vocal melodies, which eventually soar out into oceans of sound: crashing drums, aching harmonium.

The standout track is ‘Bold Fisherman’, an ethereal folk ballad whose sorrowful melodies play out over a quiet bagpipe drone, which kindles a pastoral atmosphere suited to the chastely understated lyrics: “he took her by the lily-white hand”.

There is an ‘Auld Lang Syne’ vibe to this song, but it never feels gimmicky: as the band’s name implies, theirs is a modern, fresh approach to folk music.

Based in Glasgow-via-Yorkshire, the band are inspired by the hypnotically expansive and sometimes chilling soundscapes of the Highlands and Yorkshire moors as much as they are by comforting chamber pop, which indeed Glasgow has a knack for producing (Belle & Sebastian, Camera Obscura).

Swell to Great evokes a sense of hopeful growth, the transition from pastoral nostalgia to polished and contemporary indie folk, and with fellow Scottish artists such as Rachel Sermanni, Admiral Fallow, King Creosote and Emma Pollock successfully achieving something similar, it seems we can only be destined for more greatness.

Words: Maria Sledmere


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