PH(R)ASE might be Archie Churchill-Moss’s first solo album, but there is a good chance you’ll have heard him play before. After all, Archie is regarded as one of Britain’s finest accordion players, and has worked with Eliza Carthy, Cara Dillon, Sam Kelly, Jim Moray and more. Now five years of composition has resulted in his debut album.
PH(R)ASE was recorded live over four days in studio, with Archie playing a three-row, eighteen-bass accordion. It consists of ten tracks, each containing two tunes – all Archie’s own compositions. No explanation of the strange title is provided, but the word ph(r)ase seems to come from linguistic theory, around changes to syntax and suffixes within a language. There might be a link to Archie’s aims on this album; to explore the tonal centres the button accordion is capable of, develop new playing techniques and challenge what most would think of as possible with the instrument. So, plenty to think about and no shortage of ambition!
The physical album is well presented, in book form, with simplified scores for all the tunes, and impressive photography by Graham Coe. Even the disc itself is eye-catching, covered by a photograph of what looks to me like an eyeball. I might be wrong about that, as I probably am about the title. What it doesn’t have is any explanation of the music, but we can always speculate.
PH(R)ASE starts with ‘Searching for Space’, a gentle, lilting tune that feels more like dance music than a number of the tunes here. The tempo slows a bit on track 1’s second tune, ‘Cecil’s Dream’.
The first tune of track two, ‘Kingweston Spire’, has an appropriately ecclesiastical feel. The bass notes are much in evidence and, not for the last time, the accordion sounds like a Church organ. Kingweston is a village in Archie’s native Somerset. ‘Inside the Wires’ is a slower tune and, in contrast to the complexity of ‘Kingweston Spire’, Archie’s playing is simpler and more spare.
‘Odi and Nancy’ are intricate tunes on track 3, with quick, stuttering sequences. Track 4 starts with a gentle tune, ‘Character of Mind’ before the livelier ‘For Karin’ takes over.
Track 5 is the most soulful on the album. The accordion sounds like a Church organ again on the sombre ‘A Romantic Image’. We don’t know what the image that inspired this tune is, but it made me think of tragic Pre-Raphaelite paintings. But again, I’m probably wrong. ‘Deepen or Dissolve’ is livelier but keeps the soulful feel. By contrast ‘School of Brock’ is a bright, cheerful tune and track 6’s second tune, ‘Open at Home’ has a suitably welcoming feel.
‘Great Western Road’ starts track 7. There are various highways with that name, including in London and Glasgow, one of which must be the inspiration. The tune nicely evokes a busy urban road scene – complex and sharp with some discordant sequences. The second tune, ‘The First of March’ is more straightforward and melodic.
Track 8 consists of two upbeat tunes, ‘Room 410’ and ‘Maria’. Could this be the famously haunted room 410, at Queen Anne’s Hotel in San Francisco? If it is, there’s nothing menacing about the tune. By contrast on track 9, ‘Who Owns This Land’ is a faster, spikier tune, with just a hint of danger. This is followed by the gentler ‘The Entomologist’.
‘PH(R)ASE’ concludes with two slower, stately tunes, ‘Enhanced by Height’ and ‘The Pace of Everyone’.
Archie set out to take the accordion to new places, and I’d say that he’s succeeded. Given his reputation, it’s no surprise that the musicianship is top class, but the range of harmonies and sounds created by one accordion, with no accompaniment, is truly impressive. Particularly so, when remembering that the album was recorded live.
Archie’s background is in English and European (particularly French) dance music, but the ambition of this album inevitably takes him into different places. This is serious, complex music and, while some tunes are very danceable, others are not. That might disappoint some listeners and for me, PH(R)ASE lacks any standout tracks. I enjoyed the album, but I can’t say that any of the tunes have stayed with me.
That said, all ten tracks are beautifully realised, while the compositions are ambitious and thoughtful. Without doubt, Archie Churchill-Moss is a great talent, from whom we’ll be hearing much more in the future.
Artist website: https://archiecmoss.bandcamp.com
‘School Of Brock/Open At Home’ – official video: