I’ve been unsure for a while whether to post on Land Observations or not. It’s certainly history related but it wasn’t obvious what I could really add about it when some of my favourite music writers (and the artist himself) have already covered the topic so well. I also feel a bit pretentious and amateurish writing about music, though I’m sure everyone starts out that way. There’s a huge amount of music writing out there: some good, some not so good. In my opinion, some of the best music journalism in recent years has come from the website The Quietus, and it is there that I first read about and heard Land Observations. Funnily enough, it’s also there that inspired me to finally write this post – having just saw an article on their new album (linked at the bottom of this post).
Enough about me: who the hell are Land Observations? James Brooks was formerly part of a Scottish post-rock band called Appliance, but they went on hiatus in 2003 and Brooks went on to become a visual artist. He then returned to the world of music as Land Observations in 2011 with Roman Roads EP and then in 2012 with the Roman Roads IV – XI LP. That sense of the visual really came across in these pieces as well as a great sense of geography and (most importantly for this blog) history. In particular, the cross over between these – how humans interact with and develop the world around them; the mixture of the natural and social history of the countryside.
The first set, Roman Roads, was unsurprisingly themed around those famous transport links built by the Romans – ‘Via Flaminia’, ‘Appian Way’, ‘Before The Kingsland Road’ etc.. It is subtle though; these are instrumental pieces so we don’t find cheesy lyrics about Nero hammering the point home. Instead we find looped guitars chiming along and evoking the pastoral landscape that has overgrown these once major highways, an instrumental call and response to remind the listener of the military aspect, or busy motifs and tempos calling to mind the busy traffic and trade that still follows some today. In general there’s a gentleness that verges towards ambient in places, but usually with a piece of melody in the forefront or a motorik rhythm to keep things from drifting away too much. The stand out track is perhaps the last one, ‘The Battle of Watling Street’ – the famous battle where Boudica was finally (and brutally) defeated represented here by a slow, trudging rhythm with an dirge-like e-bow dropping in and out.
I loved it, it was definitely one of my top albums of the year. If it had one fault it was that at times it could be a little similar, perhaps showing a limitation of simply using guitar loops. However, the songs were short and never really outstayed their welcome so I’m willing to accept that as a very minor issue. I found the historical and geographical references pleasantly indirect. They’re there for the listener to find and interpret, but it is not the be all and end all of the album. If one is interested however, they spur thoughts of how life and landscape has changed over the centuries since these roads had their heyday.
This year Brooks has returned with his second set, ‘The Grand Tour’. Historically this was a trip around Europe traditionally taken by rich young men in the 18th century – sort of like a posh gap year. The themes here are therefore a lot more around the birth of tourism and that sort of coming of age process, but the choice of this topic does provide a call back to the first album – many of these young aristocrats would have taken the opportunity to learn about Europe’s classical heritage (Edward Gibbon was notably a grand tourist, and used the inspiration in his later work). Indeed, the album evens finishes up in Ravenna – the great Roman city.
Musically there are some similarities too with the first album. Similar riffs here and there call back to Roman Roads as if to represent that heritage tourism but they are few and fragmented, almost lost in a much busier and more diverse work. He has remained with the limitation of just using guitar loops, but things here feel more luxurious and less minimalist. It’s an album with more momentum than the first – that was about static structures, but this is about a brief and transient journey around Europe – we have the perspective of a visitor who is just passing through, and the pacing helps to build that feeling.
These are often vague concepts and they may come across differently to others than they do to me, but (without getting too pretentious about it) that’s part of why I like this project. The artist gives an impression of a place and time, but it’s up to the listener to really fill in the gaps around it. One does occasionally have to twist things a bit to find what kind of picture is being hinted at, but that may just encourage you to dig into the subject a bit more. These are both fine, understated albums that have a great sense of the world around us and I’d recommend checking them out!
A stream of the album can be found, together with an interview with the artist, at http://thequietus.com/articles/15815-land-observations-the-grand-tour-album-stream