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2020-08-12

THE ACADEMY OF SUN - The Quiet Earth

I've come to know Nick Hudson both as a solo musician supporting Toby Driver and as part of the Kayo Dot mastermind's solo touring band in 2016 and 2018. I must admit though that since then - while always recognizing his remarkable talents - I've often paid more attention to him as one of my main windows into the melancholisarcastic post Brexit soul of an Englishman on facebook than to his actual art.

But at the latest this February "Black Feather Under Your Tongue", his spontaneous duet album with Driver, finally made me dive deep - and often - into one of his works.

It also made me very anxious to hear the long in the works new album of his actual creative main outlet, the quartet The Academy Of Sun, in which he showcases a wholly different wide spectrum of his talents.



THE ACADEMY OF SUN - The Quiet Earth (CD) (2020)


The main difference among many surely is that "Black Feather" was basically one avantgardistic impromptu session, while "The Quiet Earth" above everything else demonstrates Hudson's skills as a phenomenal songwriter.

And despite tons of remarkable aspects and details I could loose myself in, my central impression while listening to this album always remains damn, these are good songs!

It is pretty hard to pin The Academy Of Sun down to one particular genre, especially since there really is no specimen track serving as a blueprint for the "standard" TAOS tune. After the rather brief prologue which is the title track you can be sure that all fourteen times the CD skips to the next track you can expect a variation in mood, tempo and overall style.

Of course ninety percent of this album can somehow find space under the overlapping umbrellas of chamber pop and piano artrock, but well, that can already be quite an impressive wingspread in itself.

Vocally Hudson mostly sticks to a smooth sonorous performance, which through subtle changes in pitch and intensity, paired with the shifts of musical backdrop, brings many names into mind while still remaining original.
The most eccentric spotlights are reserved for the guest voice of Carisa Bianca Mellado in two tracks, one being the first full song "Polestar" on which Hudson himself sounds close to Brendan Perry, which gives the song a strong Dead Can Dance meets Kate Bush feel.

The folky, exuberantly wordy "The House" then not only drives home what an amazing lyricist Nick Hudson is, but in doing so also moves my perception of him distictly into the direction of greats like Nick Cave or Leonard Cohen.
As a non-native speaker I don't always pay the biggest attention to those things - and for sure I often don't get the full meaning -, but the lines on this album and this song in particular are just pure gold:

"This is the lamp that would flicker with bugs 
As you stared at the filament for days that would go on unending.
And this is the glue that had worn off the stamps 
You were reusing on letters that never quite got to the sending.
And this is the clapper of the bell that would signal the 
End of the hell in that war you would lose many friends in.
And this is the note you would leave to yourself 
To intercept on the other side, afterlife-pending."


While "The Quite Earth" certainly draws more specific inspiration from the eras of post punk and new wave than from the preceding decades, you just cannot achieve timeless pop appeal as a British band without conjuring at least the hint of a good old Fab Four vocal harmony, which happens most obviously on the next song "The Parts That Need Replacing".

Track five, the ironically light-hearted "Kidnapping An Heiress" is probably the greatest earworm hit of the whole album. It also gives me strong David Bowie vibes, which of course isn't any diametrical opposite at all. Boy, the pristine guitar work of Guy Brice alone gets me every time.

Speaking of guitars, there are several six string guest appearances scattered over the album, one of them unsurprisingly by Toby Driver on - also not too unexpected - the most avantgarde piece "Inferior Designs" (which is track 11, so I'm jumping around a little bit now).
Exploring the fringes of easily digestible harmony, I assume that this could very likely be a point of division for the audience, where some people might frown about the not music anymore jazz influence, while other appreciate this bold display of piano and guitar virtuosity all the more. You can take a guess, on which side I'm standing.

There are other moments on "The Quite Earth" where Driver's influence - or at least a similarity of shared influences - shine through. Like the keyboard in "Rose Devoid Of Form" or the weird eerie tone of "Charboy In The Cinders", which is another of the not too radio-friendly tunes here.

But make no mistake: While Kayo Dot were always deliberately operating the furthest away from the possibilty of any mainstream recognition, all the big names I've been throwing in as comparisons here are no accident. Even though "The Quiet Earth" has little bits where the art may outshine the accessibility, the overall impact of this almost ridiculously ambitious work is not that of a stunning, but hopelessly obscure piece of musicians' music, but that of an album which in a better world would make The Academy Of Sun huge. I mean really huuuge. Seriously.

Another thing which should be huge is the epic detailed doomsday cover artwork. It's deafening how loud this one screams I want to be a record sleeve! 
Since this is a CD/digital only release, I would at least have prefered a packaging, where the digipak didn't include an 8-page booklet for the lyrics and credits, but a foldout poster with a larger version of the cover on the other side. Yeah, that's basically my one negative critique  I can offer about this album.

Ok, I'm also not the biggest fan of "So What, Caravaggio". A whole album of songs like this would shatter my nerves. But even this black sheep track counters its annoying chorus with a great slow break passage declaring "I can feel my skeleton protesting its cargo."
And finally the wider context of the whole album perfectly smoothes out any perceived weakness on one single puzzle piece.  

But hey let's go on! I have few more name references to drop. 

The finale of the aforementioned "Rose Devoid Of Form" and the whole of "Couch Surfer" both strongly remind me of the recent ongoing phase of Ulver. Which basically means everything that's super cool about 80s synth pop in a nutshell.
"Couch Surfer" could basically be sold as a cover version of a "lost track" from a Depeche Mode classic and I would buy into the lie.

It's not far from here to Frankie Goes To Hollywood now, right? But don't think "Relax" or "Welcome To The Pleasuredome", think of their ballads, as Nick Hudson switches to a higher register and bolder expression in "Don't Touch The Animals" and I can't help but picturing Holly Johnson beside him leaning on his piano.

In "Sky Tourism" it's not the voice which enforces the comparison, but the piano during the verses is undoubtly the child of a huge Tori Amos afficionado.

The biggest vocal surprise Hudson reserves until the end, when after the post punk staccato of "Everything At Once Forever", the last track "Cloud Prayer" finally makes use of his emotive falsetto abilities.

A drifting, dream-like closer and beautiful goodbye from an album, that should rightfully be among the most talked-about releases of the year.

I know, I know... That's a little much to demand from 2020. But come on, listen to this and do your part! Karma will thank you.

"Thin skies of only cloud
Break apart when 
Tired hearts are 
Treated kindly,
Come and find me,
Love exists to share."






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