Petrels: Haeligewielle
Denovali Records

For listener and critic alike, the normal expectation is that an artist's debut recording will be imperfect in showing both promise and areas in need of attention. The exception to that rule is Haeligewielle, the debut Petrels outing by Oliver Barrett of Bleeding Heart Narrative, a fully realized concept album whose seven sonic adventures are connected by a narrative thread concerning William Walker (1869-1818), a British scuba diver known today for having shored up Winchester Cathedral. It's how he did so that makes his story so incredible and a fitting choice of subject matter for Haeligewielle: Walker's re-building of the cathedral's foundation placed him underwater in darkness for six hours a day for five years (Haeligewielle, by the way, is an Anglo-Saxon word meaning ‘holy well'). One can, if so inclined, piece together a tentative narrative from the song titles, some of which directly relate to details in Walker's life; the title of “Winchester Croydon Winchester,” for example, refers to the long hours involved in the commute between his Croydon home and his work in Winchester.

Haeligewielle begins auspiciously with “After Francis Danby” (the title a reference to a nineteenth-century Irish painter), eight moody minutes that start out as gusty ripples and thrums before morphing into something more conventionally musical, even song-like. During the song's second half, guitars and lilting keyboard patterns slowly grow in force while also becoming more diseased and disoriented—nightmares in wax, one might say. Opening forcefully, “Silt” springs to life as a loud, pulsating drone, the edges of its various elements smudged and the whole faintly heard through a smothering blanket of sound as a rather church-like melodic figure. Stately, too, is “Canute” (a possible reference to the Danish King of England, whose courtiers flattered him into believing that his word was so powerful even the tide would recede at his command, resulting in the King having his throne placed by the shore and vainly attempting to command the waves to recede until he almost drowned), even if its regal qualities are quickly obliterated by a tsunami of white noise fully capable of immolating one's sound system and shattering nearby windows.

“The Statue is Unveiled With the Face of Another,” whose title refers to a 1964 incident where a statue of Walker was unveiled, only to reveal that the statue showed the face of the Cathedral's engineer rather than Walker, offers a user-friendly antidote to the harrowing “Canute.” Multiple layers of electric guitars and bowed strings meld together to form a becalmed and inviting seven minutes of psychedelic folk—a scene-setter for “Concrete,” a quietly entrancing hymn-like setting for male voices, and the jubilant “Winchester Croydon Winchester,” whose bright keyboard patterns prance lightheartedly for a brief three minutes. The album ends with “William Walker Strengthens the Foundations,” a quarter-hour piece of mercurial design that begins with declamatory ambient-drone scene-painting sprinkled with bell tinkles before inexplicably rerouting itself down a trance-techno highway and morphing into a light-footed disco workout.

Certainly no will mistake Haeligewielle for ambient music of the wallpaper kind . A word like phantasmagoric comes close to capturing the character of a fifty-minute recording that connects the dots between psych-folk, ambient-drone, noise, and even techno. Bold and brash, Petrels' album is like some restless organism, so full of imagination and ideas it's incapable of staying in any one place for very long.

February 2012