ASTRALINGUA – Safe Passage (Midnight Lamp)

Safe PassageA self-described nomadic space-folk duo, multi-instrumentalist and composer Joseph Andrew Thompson and his backing vocalist wife Anne Rose have, over the course of recent critically well-received singles, built a healthy anticipation for this, their debut album, variously recorded in the Sierra Nevadas, the Mojave desert and France. Navigating a cosmic pathway between psychedelia, folk, progressive and classical, and complemented by instrumentation that includes flutes, violin, cello and double bass with Chris Hillman on mandolin, they declare it to be a statement on mortality, isolation and transitioning between worlds.

It open with their first two singles, ‘Plunge’ and ‘Visitor’, the former, a chamber arrangement driven by pulsing cello sets a nervy rhythm reflecting anxiety and anticipation of inevitable, inexorable change as Joseph sings “into the falls we go to whatever waits below/holding our heads up high/it’s a good day to die!”. Written and recorded in a Mojave cabin, ‘Visitor’, by contrast, is a more meditative, sparser piece of pastoral psych-folk, the simple acoustic guitar flecked with flute and bolstered by double bass, Anne having referenced the story of the Pied Piper in regards to the ambiguous intent of the song’s narrator as they softly purr “come with me my weary child, cold and all alone/put your little hand in mine and I will take you home”.

The tumbling, circling notes of an acoustic guitar provide the framework for ‘Sweet Dreams’, cello and flute complementing Joseph’s use of musical box piano notes and cajon for a lilting, sunnily pastoral languorous sway and lyrics that hint at dreams (or perhaps even suicide) as a way to reconnect with life’s lost magic.

It’s followed by the first of the instrumentals, ‘The Nimble Men’, a dissonant, ambient swirl enfolding flute and cello that sounds like it could be used in one of the dark enchantments of ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ shading into the most recent single, the softly sung, otherworldly ‘Space Blues’, which again speaks of isolation and feeling adrift in (echoing Bowie’s ‘Space Oddity’) conjuring the image of an astronaut “staring through a polished glass” at the stars, feeling empty and cold and missing his home and asking “how much have i sacrificed for curiosity?”.

‘Phantoms’ is another instrumental, a stark, sombre piano piece that shades into plucked violin, melancholic cello and disorienting, discordant sound effects like harpies at a bacchanalia. Opening what sounds like the chimes of Big Ben and proceeding on a repeated piano note drone ‘NSA’ returns to space but with an even more disturbing lyric as, bridged by a pulsing strings interlude, Joseph sings in sweetly conspiratorial tones “I know your secret/this whole time I’ve been watching you… I know what you want and I’ve got what you need/I’ve got everything that’s burning in your mind”.

By way of something different, Joseph draws on his love of William Blake for a setting of his poem about the destructive nature of envy and anger, ‘A Poison Tree’, a playful arrangement featuring trilling twin mandolins and cello that evokes European folk music, a cautionary tale to be sung in some Balkan tavern as the sun sets.

A meditation on the transitory nature of existence when “all of the things you hold so dear can in an instant disappear”, ‘Fallen’ opens with the sound of a musical box being wound up, a five minute lullaby about mortality, the arbitrary nature of death and how, drawing ion nature’s cycles, winter can draw in on relationships and beliefs leaving you high and dry as “all of the things you hold so true can make the coldest bed for you”.

Again echoing that crossing from one world to another realm, drawing on Arthurian myth, ‘Passage To Avalon’ is the third and final instrumental, a suitably dreamy, classical influenced piece featuring violin, fiddle, double bass and wordless vocals that conjures the serenity of passing over, serving as an appropriate prelude to the album’s thematically-linked seven-minute parting track, ‘The Troubled Road’. Evocative of The Flaming Lips and featuring bansuri (Indian flute), double bass, cello and FX, it’s a psychedelic cosmic spiritual with the narrator singing about weariness with the world, of being “tired of carrying this load”, ready to rest his aching bones as death closes in and he calls for Charon to ferry him across the river to the promised land.

For an album that predominantly deals with isolation, alienation, loss and death, it’s surprisingly uplifting and beguiling in its contemplation of the passage to the beyond. In Latin their name would mean the language of the stars, and this is a stellar debut indeed.

Mike Davies

Artists’ website:

‘Space Blues’ – official video: