That’ll be Ben See and Dominic Stichbury, both London-based choir leaders, singers and songwriters, the latter the founder of Chaps Choir, a 20-strong project that encourages male expression through singing. Together they’re a voice duo, Ben the high register, Dom the low, who largely sing unaccompanied – at times utilising percussion on His Head Lies Heavy – with a repertoire of predominantly self-penned material. And rather splendid they are too.
It opens with the atmospheric ‘A Song Of Two Birds’, a duet that uses choral vocal textures to express the desire to find one’s voice as expressed in the sole line “It sits in my throat and it sings”. They crack on into the dampened thumping percussion of ‘Savage’, a playful exploration of the battle between our primal instincts, the reality of life in an increasingly urban world and a desire for connection with others, the persistent backdrop ticking, tribal-like worksong stomp rhythm and slightly spooky “nuzzle, nuzzle, nuzzle me” refrain weaving a hypnotic spell as, with the accompaniment of the Chaps Choir, they sing of how “this savage sleeps on comfortable sheets…he sweats to the bone in a sweet cologne”.
Sung unaccompanied, the swaying ‘Children Of Darkness’ is a terrific interpretation of Mimi & Richard Fariña number originally recorded back in 1965 but the line “Now in this age of confusion I have need for your company” having a striking resonance during the lockdowns. The other cover, again unaccompanied (save for a hint of drone) and making effective use of a complex vocal tapestry, is also from the pen of Richard Fariña, the much recorded ‘The Quiet Joys Of Brotherhood’ which, set to the tune of ‘My Lagan Love’ and balancing the wonder of nature against man’s destructiveness, imagines a world where “love is lord of all”.
Featuring just their two voices in harmony and hum, inspired by the idea of morning meditation, the lovely ‘Gentle Morning’ sounds just as the title suggests, conjuring a feeling of stillness as “I’ll quietly sit while the clouds are warming/And wait for silence to grow from within”. Then, accompanied by a claps, finger clicks and stamps, it’s time to get playful again with ‘Scabs’, a marvellous celebration of childhood imagination (“We’re spitfire planes/Swerving hurricanes/But we’re low on fuel /And it’s time to land/Waging war/With the kids from next door/And we need to defend our patch”) and misadventure (“I grazed my knee/Climbing trees/Reaching for the highest branch/I ripped my shirt/While I was digging in dirt”) and taps into that perverse but somehow pleasurable feeling of picking way at your scabs (“I like to the pick the edges/And work my way in/Revealing all the soft and fresh new skin”) a simultaneously disgusting but romantic image about remembering when we were young and wore our cuts and bruises as badges of honour, “the marks of time well spent”, the final chorus enlisting the vocal assistance of ten-year-old Emily.
There’s more bruises but with a darker resonance in ‘Crow’, the bird a familiar metaphor – along with black dogs – for depression and mental health issues, the song originally appearing on their debut EP ‘Shoulder’ but revisited now with a more driving arrangement, nervy percussion and additional vocal layers as they sing how “That crow on my bed post/Still keeps me awake/It lurks behind my shoulder/Makes day and night feel colder/The shadow I can’t shake”.
The lyrics to the Vaughn Williams hymnal-like opening verse of ‘Through The Years’ are taken from a 1695 ballad titled ‘If Men Would Love Each Other’ which, comprised of six verses, reimagines the world and calls on men to bring about change through love. Featuring the Chaps Choir once more, the verse is followed by a present-day response from the duo (“If men would love each other/And wear their love with pride/A common heart would gather/And reach the other side/Do we open up and listen/Not hide from all our fears? /Will we learn to love each other/Grow our friendship through the years?”) gathering to a multi-voiced crescendo.
Images of silence and stillness return for ‘Leaf’, a vocally interwoven a capella celebration of the power and resilience of nature (“To the flower that grows between the bricks/A reminder of what could be/You’ve pushed through the concrete crack/And into the silent smoke/This city is an endless choke/Now you’ve brightened up my day/Weaving green against the grey”), the melody set against a hypnotic repeated metronomic pattern, that builds towards a closing dreamlike meditation with closing subtle chimes and cymbals evoking nature’s presence.
Another number build around stamps, clicks and body percussion, they describe the mantra-like brief ‘Dance With Your Shadow’ with its overlapping vocals as “a playful invitation to move with the parts of ourselves that we’re sometimes afraid to express”, a reminder that, in contrast to what some may preach, “the devil is not on the dance floor….the devil waits for those who stand still”.
They end with the unadorned two part harmony ‘Lullaby For A Full Grown Man’, the opening line providing the album title in a return to unsettled minds (“His doubts and his regrets turn him over again/He counts all his mistakes/Cutting into the dark while shadows take shape/These are the demons that keep him awake”) and a reminder that “This is the moment to hold him tight” and bring a reassuring calm.
Unlike anything else out there at the moment but perhaps sharing kinship with Katy Rose Bennet in exploring the ways in which the human voice can be used, His Head Lies Heavy could well prove one of the year’s finest folk releases.
Artists’ website: www.benanddom.com
‘Savage’ – official video: