AGENT STARLING – Constellation Of Birds (DHM)

Constellation Of BirdsA duo comprising Quentin Budworth on hurdy gurdy and bassist Louise Duffy-Howard (aka Lou Loudhailer) respectively based in Bridlington and Hull, with her son Dexter on violin and cello, Agent Starling craft experimental alt-folk that draws as much on traditional influences as it does contemporary sounds, complete with samples. Constellation Of Birds, their second album, features seven original numbers that take inspiration from the modern environment and traditional European music alongside two arrangements of traditional tunes, opening with ‘Valley To Mountainside’, with its time signature changes, layered overlapping harmonies and whirligig feel, its simple lyric celebrating the beauty of nature.

Perhaps one of the more unusual songs to be related to Covid, the jittery ebb and flow prog-folk ‘Leave No Trace’ with its percussive handclaps and pulsing keys is about an alien stranded on Earth during the pandemic, though that should be taken with a pinch of lockdown metaphor (“staying in, looking out”). It’s followed by the first traditional tune, the Swedish ‘Hälleforsnäsar’, a slow, otherworldly bleak and chilly instrumental, the pace and robustness picking up again for ‘Paqaratz’, a number about their dissent with the British government, (“the rats in the cabinet are jumpin’ at each other/Gonna pick ‘em up and pack ‘em off and bring in another”) albeit with a decided hypnotic Eastern European musical backdrop to Lou’s rapped lyrics.

It’s back to a celebration of nature with the pulsating ‘Midsommer’, specifically the summer solstice (“Sun, stand high, and long, come dance through the waves, and hear the song that heralds the dawn”), a Patti Smith-like mantra-feel to the vocals though I couldn’t stop myself hearing ‘Shaking All Over’ in the descending notes. Then things turn more experimental, electro-psychfolk on the rumbling urgency that is ‘Princess Julia’, a fairy tale of a royal pretender and her secret with an undercurrent theme of arrogant privilege (“Let me in I’m Julia, you know who my mother is?!), that dark vein also flowing  through the hurdy gurdy drone, electronic scuff and pulses of ‘Shadowland’ which, depicting a mysterious chance meeting by the dark sea, opens on a  dub reggae groove but manifests itself as a skewed musical variation of the traditional folk ‘Over The Hills And Far Away’.

The second of the two traditional instrumentals is ‘Bridget Cruise’, an Irish waltz by the blind harpist O’Carolan arranged for violin, cello and guitar,  though typically spiking their source inspirations with more exotic ingredients, it sound much more Japanese. It ends, then, with  the ecological-themed ‘The Stonemason’s Dream’, a  spoken track to a backdrop of discordant industrial percussion, pealing bells, drone and an ominous marching motif  as they call for  cathedral-thinking (“the master mason looks at a pile of stones and sees a cathedral… The forester stakes a lone beech sapling/And the dappled light of the future woodland flickers in her eye/She gathers a handful of acorns and an ancient oak wood grows high up before her”) so that “this green and blue planet will live and breathe for generations thereafter”, a world where “rivers will flow clean and clear/Oceans will teem with life/The air will be fresh and pure”.

Not, on the face of it, instantly accessible, but, with repeated listens the disparate textures and threads they weave coalesce into a mesmerising tapestry of sound that is uniquely theirs.

Mike Davies

Artists’ website:

‘Paqaratz’ – official video:

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