Amid the comedy chaos of the Edinburgh Fringe, tonight’s SOUNDING showcase in Stockbridge Church offers a tranquil grove in which to look up and take stock of the sheer lyric beauty that is contemporary Scottish indie.
Swapping the raucous Royal Mile for an enchanting venue in the leafy suburbs, SOUNDING features three nights of music from Lomond Campbell and Modern Studies, both acts accompanied by the Pumpkinseeds Chamber Orchestra in association with The Glad Café.
Tonight’s show is more than just a gig: upon arrival, the audience are presented with a download code, postcard and pamphlet, featuring a page of enthused childhood memories, assembled from various members of tonight’s ensemble.
This lovely detail gestures towards the emotional and creative context of SOUNDING’s musical collaboration, with a shared sense of personal narrative and expression.
Like a river, we never stay quite the same but carry onwards the silt of our history; together, the associative nostalgic fragments remind us of how to attend to the world with a childlike wonder.
Reading in advance of the music, you’re prepared for something crystalline, lighthearted and pure; this transformation of memory, place and self into songs that are at once clear and tender, solid and complex.
Firstly, Lomond Campbell takes to the sprawling indigo glow of the stage, cracking jokes between tracks in a manner that feels like a gesture of hospitality.
He begins with ‘The Misery Bell’, a track whose emotional despondence reaches catharsis in the luminous twangs of Campbell’s guitar, along with undulating strings which harmonise warmth in the quietly easeful cool of his voice.
Campbell’s set draws heavily from last year’s Black River Promise, an album written in the once-derelict school in the Highlands that Campbell made his home and studio.
Lyrically, Campbell’s romanticism veers cryptically into a dark pastoral—the sinuous burns and menacing hills which roughen the edges of wilderness—and with the accompanying orchestra, such inner landscapes sprawl into cinematic grandeur.
The set feels like a journey; you might be reminded of Mull Historical Society’s knack for weaving a good yarn about place and memory, but Campbell’s storytelling is perhaps less concrete and more abstract, sharp: “at times I feel like I / have a half-plunged knife in my thigh”, “how many particles does it take to fill the universe?”.
Each song is lifted above its solipsistic origins towards something more expansive, as Campbell’s incisive lyrics tenderly glide above Pete Harvey’s swelling orchestral accompaniments, often recalling Robert Kirby’s tastefully haunting string arrangements on Nick Drake’s Five Leaves Left.
When Joe Smillie’s drums kick in at last, it’s like something once-hidden coming out across the bay, a storm of emotion to welcome us home.
Highlights include ‘Every Florist in Every Town’ and the seven-minute melancholy soar of ‘Black River Promise’.
Beautiful projector visuals by Simon Kirby depict rolling flickers of oceanic light and shadow, adding to that dramatic sense of momentum whipped up by jagged cross-rhythms then settling into a soothing legato—the invigorating, contemplative feeling of roving.
It’s a stirring set, and a perfect way to prepare us for what Modern Studies bring to the stage, including (but not limited to): a choir of three angels, a ‘Kraftwerkian array of keys’, two trombonists and the mesmerising entwining of Emily Scott and Rob St. John’s voices.
Modern Studies perform a generous selection of new material from their forthcoming second album, due for release next year.
There couldn’t be a better way to showcase the flourishing potential of these songs.
Scott’s voice is consistently the guiding lustre of a clear mountain stream, lilting and nuanced, enriched by harmonies from the choir of white-garbed backing vocalists.
The marmoreal gorgeousness of St. John’s baritone adds a bedrock to the euphonious female vocals, subtly melding the graceful inclines of feeling with a sturdy and cherished conviction.
The new songs have a certain edge, a momentum and looseness that goes beyond Swell to Great’s pensive landscapes in pursuit of more dramatic outcrops of potent emotion; the soars and swoons of its longing carried forth in assured melodies, backed with lavish layers of brass, strings and vocal harmony.
The performance evokes a pastoral, chamber-pop atmosphere, with lyrics that offer a literary elegance, lush cello and trombone fleshing out each track with dreamy resonance.
Despite the chamber-pop label, Modern Studies are always reaching for the next horizon of sound—whether it’s a playful touch of the carnivalesque, visionary folk appeal or the sorrowful cadence of Tim Buckley at his most intimately earnest.
Their visuals shift also between micro and macro, depicting plasmatic, microbial and botanical imagery burgeoning into the comparative sublimity of Georgic then celestial vistas (appropriate, given SOUNDING’s proximity to a total solar eclipse).
Throughout, there’s a blending of old and new: the patient patter of analogue instrumentation swept up in fresh melodies, an exploratory sense of revisiting the weathered landscapes and loves of our youth—“If I could change you I would not change you”.
It’s difficult not to leave the gig with a desperate enthusiasm for the new record, a chance to absorb the songs at your own pace; to add their intricate arrangements to your own topographies of memory and place.
Events such as this, alongside the likes of Start to End’s project of covering cult and eclectic albums start-to-finish, prove that an appetite for the record as such still exists; an appetite for music as narrative, journey and immersive experience.
SOUNDING is really about the intrinsically reciprocal beauty of songwriting and performance, the special magic that happens when a body like Creative Scotland puts money where it counts to facilitate a genuine treat of an evening.
Words: Maria Sledmere