Leafcutter John: The Forest and The Sea

[31 August 2006]

By Daniel Spicer

Right from the first captivating utterance you know this is going to be special. A voice, unaccompanied, cracked and sensitive, setting the scene with a desperate, melancholy, hushed evocation: “Let it begin.”

And that’s when you do the double-take, check the liner notes. No, you were right. It really is Leafcutter John. It seems London’s John Burton has found his voice. On the strength of these first couple of seconds it’s hard to believe that it’s the same Leafcutter John who made his name with glitchy laptop wizardry, last heard on 2003’s The Housebound Spirit, suitably released by Planet Mu, the home of IDM. Here he is, singing, naked and vulnerable, in a rich tone that’s part David Sylvian, part Thom Yorke.

And then the music comes: a swirling mixture of finger-picked guitar, lush analogue layers and fizzing electronics, building into a gloomy, cathartic anthem redolent of Radiohead’s most emotionally potent moments—only to be swiftly brushed aside by crisp yet tantalisingly indistinct field recordings: hooves on tarmac or boots in puddles, the sound of a journey beginning, destinations, quests.

What unfolds over the next three quarters of an hour is a simple fable, presented through song and sound.

Two people become lost in a forest at dusk—beautifully painted with accordion and brushed drums, thick drones descending with the night and disjointed groans and whooshes ushering in the disorientation of darkness.

There is nothing for them to do but spend the night among the trees and animals of the gloom. In a brief, soporiphic lullaby our hero advises his friend; “Lay your head down.” Then the nightmares begin. Crickets rattling, paranoid whines and swoops, startling musique concrète stabs, bubbles and whispers. Our hero sits tight and waits for morning, soothing himself with the gentle affirmation: “I know it’ll come.”

Morning though, when it comes, brings not the calm that was hoped for, but panic: a tough, heavy, post-techno trance beat; menacing drone textures and ambience, scuttling with close-mic’d intricacies, like the last nocturnal animals returning to their lairs. The morning sun reveals that our heroes have spent the night sleeping on a cliff top between the forest and the sea. They are dazzled, confused.

A brief argument ensues: to retrace steps and risk the forest’s confusion once more, or forge ahead, into the sea? Our heroes take to the water, beginning an entirely new adventure. Amidst lapping waves and a tense violin drone, our narrator leaps, with the final words: “You are an animal now.” There is a sense of death, dissolution, metamorphosis, of animal lessons learned in the night that can never be reconciled with an ordinary human life. There is no turning back. The journey ends with a full minute of sea sounds and birdsong. Our heroes are lost to sight. We will never see them again.

This, in case you haven’t guessed, is a concept album. It’s based on an allegedly true story, but imbued with mythical resonances, sinister fairy tale simplicities and metaphysical significance. This is a slice of modern folklore, brought to life virtually single-handedly by Burton with bouzouki, lyre, cymbals, timpani, accordion, trombone, piano, percussion, music box and the sensitive application of 21st century electronica.

This is an utterly absorbing, charming and idiosyncratic journey through one man’s childlike imaginings. This is as moving, ambitious and coherent as Dark Side of the Moon, as electronically radical as anything by Matmos, as gentle as Vetiver.

This, ladies and gentlemen, is the birth of a whole new genre. Let’s call it Progtronica, shall we? Now let’s have some more.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/leafcutter-john-the-forest-and-the-sea/