Saxophone and fiddle isn’t a combination you hear very often, no more than flute and Hardanger fiddle but here they are, together with accordion, piano and viola. Life Continuum is the third album from a duo who are, as they say, big in Sweden. Actually Emma is fairly big in Britain, too, and I know you’re wondering where you’ve heard her name before. She is, of course, a quarter of Methera, sometime musical partner of Rob Harbron and a regular session musician.
With her husband Daniel, Sweden is now her home and where the duo performs most often. They have gone back to basics with this album, no guest musicians and nowhere to hide. It is impossible to describe neatly what Daniel and Emma do. At the beginning I decided that they were playing jazz, even on a traditional tune such as ‘The Sham Doctor’, such is the freedom of their arrangements. The first track, Emma’s ‘Alice Viggvisa’ opens very smoothly but as it segues imperceptibly smoothly into the traditional ‘Polska From Mörkö’ it opens up. Daniel’s ‘Trollsjön’ really does sound as though they’re making it up as they go along – in the best possible way.
Later, in a section devoted to tunes for their children, Emma sings ‘Golden Slumbers’ and in the final quarter, ‘Life Continuum II’, I was astonished to find a song by an old friend, the late Sarah Morgan. ‘Keep You In Peace’ is based on a Celtic blessing and probably written for one of Sarah’s community choirs. I’d like to think of it as proof that music has no frontiers. There are some studio tricks so Life Continuum isn’t off the floor. At one point Daniel duets with himself on flute and baritone sax while Emma plays pizzicato but nothing is done in a gimmicky way. On ‘Hav Av Blätt’, for instance, it really does sound as if Daniel sat down at the piano while Emma picked up her fiddle and they just played.
I’ve had mixed feelings about Methera in the past. They are fine musicians, without doubt, who choose to play as a string quartet so why not dip into the classical repertoire? There are many traditional tunes appropriated by European composers and it wouldn’t be wrong to pinch one or two back. It does seem that by writing new music and playing it in this style they are actually producing modern classical music. Still, here they are celebrating their tenth anniversary with their third album, Vortex, so what do I know?
My favourite track is the pairing of two traditional jigs, ‘Da Shaalds O’ Foula’ and ‘Old Favourite’ and I suppose that is because it is traditional. In contrast, the eleven-minute title track seems dangerously modern and some might consider it self-indulgent. The opener, Emma Reid’s ‘Lily’, manages to squeeze three “movements” into a very short period – the temperament of a one-year-old is held to blame – and is an excellent piece to kick off with. Lucy Deakin’s ‘The Fox’ and Miranda Rutter’s ‘Blackbird Schottische’ make another good team with its opening pizzicato violin imitating the call of the titular bird.
‘Hagsätra Brudmarsch’, from the band Väsen, translates nicely from Swedish to English and John Dipper’s ‘Love Lies Bleeding’ is another top tune and one that modernises the style of the string quartet with the feel of traditional music which is, I suppose, what they set out to do. Finally, Paul Mack’s ‘Late Longings’, a dreamy, drifting tune, owes nothing to either the classical form or the traditional and is possibly where Methera are most at home. Vortex will undoubtedly please their many fans as Methera set out on their anniversary tour next month.
Flock & Fly is the second album from Rob and Emma and I have to confess that the first one escaped me. Rob Harbron is a musician with a hand in so many projects, particularly where Sam Sweeney is involved, while Emma Reid is best know here as a member of Methera but also works in a least six other combos both in the UK and in Sweden where she now lives.
The album was recorded in Sweden and is mostly traditional drawing from both shores of the North Sea. The geographical exception is ‘Pretty Saro’ which is coupled with the wonderfully titled ‘Shove The Pig’s Foot A Little Further Into The Fire’ as one of two tracks which feature Göran Wennerbrandt on Weissenborn guitar. The division of the spoils is even-handed with each player sometimes playing support to the other’s party pieces and the lead often switching between concertina and fiddle as a set moved from one tune to another. So Emma’s viola adds depth to Rob’s ‘November Waltz’ for example and Rob plays some guitar but usually it’s the main instruments underpinning the lead or playing pure duets – the ‘Polkas’ set is particularly fine.
We don’t often hear Rob Harbron singing lead but he pops up unexpectedly on ‘Master Kilby’ which segues from ‘Da Unst Bridal March’. Having lulled into a false sense of security he returns almost at the end of the album to sing ‘Pretty Saro’. He has a warm unaffected voice and I would suggest that he shouldn’t continue to hide this particular light under a bushel.