Fovea Hex: The Salt Garden II
Janet Records / Headphone Dust / Die Stadt

Every year or so, Fovea Hex materializes to add yet another edition to its ravishing discography, a release typically shorter in total time than one would prefer but satisfying nonetheless. If the group's leader Clodagh Simonds takes her time perfecting its material, we're all the luckier for it. As the title indicates, The Salt Garden 2 is the follow-up to 2016's critically lauded first part, which at forty minutes acts as an album-length complement to the second part's EP-length twenty (for the record, another version of The Salt Garden 2 supplements its four songs with a bonus CD featuring a twenty-one-minute remix by Abul Mogard of “We Dream All The Dark Away”).

Though Simonds' vocalizing and songwriting are the essence of Fovea Hex, the other members—Michael Begg, Colin Potter, Laura Sheeran, Cora Venus Lunny, and Kate Ellis—make critical contributions to the group's sound, and as per usual, special guests appear, in this case Brian Eno and Justin Grounds. Each of the four pieces is like some finely crafted jewel free of fault, and other singers could learn a thing or two from Simonds: free of gratuitous embellishment, her delivery conveys no small amount of emotion in simply giving voice to her songs' timeless melodies. The arrangements serve her singing well, too, in providing artful but not overpowering detail that complements the purity of her voice, as does the generally languid pace at which the songs unfold. Even when the instrumentation is plentiful, sounds are used sparingly to reinforce the effect of the whole.

Lyrically about the longing felt by separated lovers and featuring Ellis on cello alongside Simonds on vocals, percussion, and keyboards, “You Were There” opens the EP with a dramatic dronescape over which the leader's multi-tracked vocal conveys a controlled sense of desperation without resorting to histrionics. There's much to admire about the song, its well-considered arrangement and vocal treatments among them, but perhaps the best thing about it is how well it captures the group's talent for sounding both thoroughly modern and like a collective that's time-traveled from some earlier era to today. As haunting is “Chained,” which sees Simonds' vocals and pianos joined by Begg's bass tongue drum, Ellis's cello, and Venus Lunny's viola in a treatment whose lyrics recount a narrative so unsettling it verges on harrowing.

As effective as the opening songs are, it's “All Those Signs” that is the high point. Hymn-like in tone, it presents Simonds' singing at its most moving, and the stately slowness at which the song unfurls amplifies the emotional impact. There's an end-of-days feeling to the lyrics, a sense of light fading and of life slipping away, that's stirring (“Days may come and days may go / Over that good horizon again / And after we slide under / We dream our paradise ...”). It's fitting that Eno should appear on the song, given how much its tone recalls the wistful character of songs such as “By This River” and “Spider and I” (Before and After Science, 1977), and when his voice appears as part of the chorus during the song's triumphant closing, the moment is so powerful “All Those Signs” threatens to turn into a Fovea Hex-Eno collaboration. That hymn-like quality, incidentally, turns out to be more than a mere figment of one's imagination, as confirmed by the presence of the lyrics “Surely goodness follows us / Goodness and Mercy / All of our days” that directly reference Psalm 23:6 (“Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, ...”). The sense of light fading that's so exquisitely captured in “All Those Signs” is perpetuated by the closing instrumental “Piano Fields 1,” where Simonds' delicate piano meanderings are augmented by Colin Potter's treatments.

Some album releases include so much padding they would be better issued as EPs. A twenty-minute release by Fovea Hex, on the other hand, is so substantive, it feels like a full-fledged album despite being half the length. Here's hoping a year from now a third chapter appears to illuminate our days as powerfully as this second one does.

September 2017