NORTHERN FLYWAY – Northern Flyway (Hudson Records, HUD013)

Northern FlywayThis eponymous album from Northern Flyway is a beautiful addition to a rapidly growing body of music prominently featuring birdsong. Northern Flyway is Jenny Sturgeon and Inge Thomson’s new audio-visual project, featuring Magnus Robb’s bird recordings. Subtly drawing parallels with human migration and diversity, it’s also an alarm cry of disconnection from our natural world.

The rhythms and patterns of birdsong create audible landscapes of seasonal change, starting with the honking geese of opener, ‘Flyway’, which suggests the drone of an invisible aerial motorway of migration. The dawn chorus’s bubbling crescendo is transformed into a delirious, giddy fairground ride in ‘We Are The Morning’.

‘Rosefinch’ is the first of many songs dedicated to particular species. It’s a warm, bright song, with Jason Singh’s churring beatboxing and an accordion motif to mirror the bird’s phrasing. ‘The Gannets’ is a perfect example of how the album intertwines interview snippets and birdsong, often digitally manipulated to form beats and punctuations. The birds’ eerie, scratchy cry cuts through the airy, chant-like vocal, as a gently curling flute breaks free, soaring over a dully metallic percussion.

‘Lost Lapwing’ with its rather brusque, mantra-like vocal takes the bird’s eye view; the manipulated birdsong at times adding a whale-song-like melancholy before eliding into Robbie Burns’ delicate ‘Sweet Afton’. The richly-layered ‘Curlew’ evokes the bird’s wide-open-skies call (like a bleaker, saltier skylark), and the wisdom attributed to ‘The Owls’ (inaccurately, say some who work with them) is contemplated over a delicious curvy, sinuous beat.

The powerful ‘fragment of the past’ that is ‘The Eagle’ sees mediaeval touches added to Tennyson’s poem fragment. More early music influences, plus Singh’s menacing animalistic beatboxing, feature in closing track, ‘Huginn And Muninn’ (the names of Odin’s ravens), in celebration of the darkly intelligent corvid.

‘No Barriers, No Borders’ makes a pointed comment on migration, its breathy atmosphere faintly calling to mind The Unthanks’ Mount The Air (no bad thing). Sarah Hayes’s lovely, plangent piano lead on this and the rather more autumnal ‘Nomad’.

As a high, shimmering wave of sound moves across ‘Loch Carron Flame’, the listener’s viewpoint plunges from migrating geese down into the flame shell reef of the murky Scottish waters. Videos of the reef are available to watch online: it gives the song’s repeated ‘goodbye’ an added pathos that is almost unbearable.

Northern Flyway portrays the beauty of these birds and their often precarious environments without preachiness. Original and multi-layered, this is an enigmatic, gorgeous piece of work.

Su O’Brien

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‘Curlews’ – official video: