If you could only use two words to describe Seabuckthorn’s I Could See the Smoke – the latest EP from U.K. solo acoustic guitarist and multi-instrumentalist Andy Cartwright – they would be subdued and tension: The songs within aren’t brash, over-the-top, booming, in-your-face, raucous, ear-splitting or any of a thousand other clichés used to describe loud music. But they aren’t bland or boring either, and they don’t tend to get lost in the background or disappear on the wind. They are tense, urgent and infused with a sense of foreboding, which is sometimes approached with melancholy resignation and sometimes with a kind-of simmering anger.
Some may find I Could See the Smoke demanding, so held-back and patient is Seabuckthorn’s playing, layering and arranging, while some will find this a positive. In an overstimulated and oversaturated world that runs 24/7, we could do with more art that forces us to slow down, and we could do with more music that forces us to listen and listen carefully, to be still, to pay attention, to be one with the gradually unfolding layers of sound.
Primarily utilising a variety of heavily textured 12-string acoustic guitars, a resonator guitar and a mix of percussion, Cartwright combines this instrumentation with a production style that is murky, dense and at-times dirty, whereby the studio effectively becomes an instrument unto itself. The percussion often sinks to the bottom of the mix, a swampy and barely-distinguishable beat that nonetheless gives momentum to the music above; guitars become unrecognisable, the very core of their sound morphed and transmogrified, sometimes resembling a violin or viola, sometimes a harp, sometimes a melodica, sometimes a cello, sometimes a bagpipe; ghost voices float across the top of everything, eerie wails and moans that only accentuate the pervading sense of foreboding, existing on the edge of audibility, their origins hard to pin down, perhaps an acoustic guitar feeding back or a manipulated swell of reverb or the slow fade-out of a delay.
With all of these devices at his disposal, Seabuckthorn weaves dense soundscapes built on softly swelling drones, slowly building layers and subtly shifting repetition. They are extremely accomplished examples of this sub-genre, micro-genre, call-it-what-you-will, and as mentioned are tense and urgent with a depth of feeling that is often quite moving. However, what is truly remarkable and what distinguishes him is that he seemingly has a keen appreciation for brevity and a specific aural vision that doesn’t require a rambling exploration – his songs are concise without ever feeling rushed, with all bar one hovering around the three-and-a-half minute mark. This is a true rarity in this field; the norm as practised by what you would call his contemporaries – Dirty Three, Jackie-O-Motherfucker, Low, Barn Owl, Voice of the Seven Woods, Western Skies Motel – is to stretch out their explorations of tension and restraint, to make full use of time to the point that it sometimes becomes indulgent, to incorporate a sense of languid laziness into their musical visions.
All of these terms apply to Seabuckthorn’s music (apart from indulgent), the only real difference being that he seems to have cut off the fat, if you will. But what a difference that makes – by condensing the sprawl typical of this kind of music without sacrificing its intent and integrity, he has brought fresh life to it and allowed us to hear it in a brand new way. And for that, we should thank him.