As with his 2019 solo debut, Echo, Walker has enlisted the help of an array of different vocalists to give voice to material that ranges from the traditional to three numbers marking his first foray into songwriting rather than only a composer famed for his fingerstyled guitar work. With backing musicians that include Anna Jenkins on violin and viola, Nancy Kerr on fiddle and go to bass player John Parker, Banish Air From Air explores a theme of the relationship between mankind and nature, it opens with Sophie Jamieson giving ethereal voice to a minimalist madrigal setting of Emily Dickinson’s title track poem, a metaphysical meditation on our dependency on nature, couched in pulsating guitar notes, hollow distant percussion and electronic washes that gather to peak before ebbing quietly away.
Inspired by murmurations on the seafront of his home, the first of the instrumentals, ‘Starlings’, employs Spanish guitar with ruminative circling notes interspersed with more expansive patterns to conjure images of birds in graceful flight against the gathering dusk. A second poet, this time Rudyard Kipling, provides the words for ‘The Way Through The Woods’, Kerr on vocal and her fiddle buzzing like insects while Walker plays dappled clawhammer banjo and nervy guitar giving it a dark Appalachian mountain music flavour that perfectly contemplates the poem’s theme of man’s creations being overwhelmed by the power of nature.
Opening with spooked guitar notes, the first of his lyricist ventures comes with a very traditional sounding, violin-coloured and gradually building drum rhythms of ‘The Yews Of Borrowdale’ which notably marks the long overdue return of the outstanding Emily Mae Winters, her first new recording since 2019’s High Romance, the song inspired by and borrowing from Wordsworth’s ‘The Yew-Trees’ and telling of “When the old Kings of Cumbria ruled this land” and four brothers usurped their father before killing each other, condemned to haunt the woods, four yews embodying them and standing guard over their remains. . Dating back to the dark ages, apparently there are now only three yew trees left standing in Borrowdale.
Dubliner Louis Brennan does the honours bringing his deep, growly vocals to the second Walker song, ‘Eggshells’, a doomy-sounding slow walking rhythm that suggests Walker might have been listening to Cave and Waits in the run up to making the album, the former informing the resonating dry desert guitar solo. The lyric was inspired by the legend that says to always smash an empty eggshell lest a witch use it to ride out to sea to whip up a storm and claim a mariner’s life, here telling of how a sailor picks up a girl by the harbourside, but then sails away the next day only to discover he’s made the wrong choice (“now I hear her coming for me, I can hear her scream in the rise of the wind…she’ll drag me down low/To feast on my bones”).
The second instrumental, as you might assume ‘Neptune’ draws on the sea for its atmosphere and musical imagery, opening with the distant sounds of the shipping forecast and opening into a guitar figure that, backed by a wash of synths and strings, calls to mind Mike Oldfield in its scope and sound.
The only actual traditional number is ‘King Storm’, a 1779 broadside which, Lucy Alexander on vocals, comes with a decidedly heavy and inexorably building 70s progressive folk rock cum trip hop arrangement of backward tapes, electric guitar, rumbling drums, clanking percussion and a gathering sonic chaos to embody the personified power of the storm (“At his call the dark pine bow’d his head to the ground/And the rivers rush’d wild o’er the bright flowered mound”) to mesmerising effect.
After the storm comes calm, plucked guitar notes plinking like raindrops at the start and end of ‘Showers On Ascension Day’ (legend claims such rainfall can cure blindness) as the waters trickle through the core of the tune continuing into ‘There Will Come Soft Rains,’ which, sung by Sam Lee, is a contemplative, strings-shaded slow waltz setting of the Sara Teasdale poem published just after the start of the 1918 German Spring Offensive during World War I and during the 1918 flu pandemic in which she contemplates the end of humanity and the establishment of a new peaceful order by a nature indifferent to mankind’s extinction.
The last of the instrumentals, ‘Northern Lights’, sparsely picked on Spanish guitar, takes on a very pastoral feeling of tranquillity, the crackle being the actual recorded sound of the Aurora Borealis as charged particles hit the earth, the album ending with Walker joined by the gentle lullabying tones of Kirsty Merryn on the simple, soothing pensive melody of ‘Kepler And Sol’ that takes us into the realm of astrophysics, the music of the spheres and that “perfect chord” of the universe’s creation as man “made music to pretend/A million lifetimes in that moment’s chime”, a closing reminder of our place in the universe. Airs and graces indeed.
Artist’s website: www.benwalkermusic.com
‘The Way Through The Woods’ – official video: