Ben McElroy: Bird-Stone

One comes to Bird-Stone by self-described ambient-folk artist Ben McElroy (aka The Four Fishermen) anticipating something of a fingerpicking-styled collection but is confronted with something quite different. McElroy, originally from The Wirral (near Liverpool) and now comfortably ensconced in Nottingham, does play acoustic guitar on the forty-minute release, issued in a tiny run of fifty CDrs, but Bird-Stone's foundation is strings, specifically improvised recordings of cello, viola, and violin that the UK artist painstakingly stitched together one bit at a time. Though computer-based processing is also part of the mix, McElroy's material exudes a strong rustic character that likens it to rural folk music.

His slightly raw touch on the strings prevents the album from ever sounding too slick, and adding to the homemade feel is the sound of hiss that accompanies the acoustic guitar's interjections on “The Brightness Surrounds”; such details prove to be less a distraction than enhancement when they add to the recording's intimate nature. “Bernie's Army” even features singing by McElroy, which, multi-tracked and delivered in a natural and untrained style, complements the folk-drone character of the song. The tone of the album is generally melancholy, but an occasional moment of levity arises, too, such as when a sprightly jig unexpectedly emerges halfway through the opener “Surely There Are Worse Things,” and McElroy's ambient leanings come to the fore during the subdued meditation “That Was the Day.”

A narrative of sorts runs through the five-track collection having to do with the juxtaposition of the industrial and natural worlds as well as the impact of environmental devastation on current and future generations; in keeping with such topics, the album's folk-drones are plaintive in tone and imbued with sadness. But Bird-Stone is no down trip on sonic terms, and one comes away from its folk-inflected settings impressed by McElroy's instrumental command and his vivid evocation of the British countryside. In fact, so deft is his weaving of the instruments that the music plays like real-time interactions between three or more musicians as opposed to material assembled incrementally by a single player. That's never more impressively demonstrated than during the extended drone “He Said Life Is a Question but Don't Let Them Hassle You For an Answer” where for twelve-plus minutes McElroy executes a remarkably convincing simulation of a string trio's interplay.

August 2016