Welcome Strangers, the second album by Scotland-based quartet Modern Studies, is deep and mystical, with determined and deeply affecting duets on top of delicate instrumentation, definite drums and percussion, and sweeping atmospheres dropped in for mood and reverence. To say the music and vocals on Welcome Strangers are affecting provides little insight into the impact of the songwriting and arrangement weaved into each track of the album. Modern Studies’ focused approach is evident uniformly on the album, and its exploration of the “occult” (as in unknown and strange) is performed in entrancing beauty.
While there are an opening and closing on Welcome Strangers, the closeness each track holds across the album offers a consistency perceived as without beginning or end. The album is rooted in elements of Britain first and foremost, with a sense of dreariness and unknown lurking at each turning point. The effects of the atmosphere enveloped on the album and the mood evoked by steady lyrics and similar themes and instrumentation generate a feeling of timeliness without fear of past or present.
Duetted and complementing vocals by Emily Scott and Rob St. John coupled with strong arrangements and perfectly balanced instrumental sections drive the album forward. Opener “Get Back Down” brings these elements into focus quietly, but lest any delayed introduction occurs, music opens the door for Scott’s high octave singing to enter and present themes of “strangeness” (title reference) and friends and family. The next track, “Disco”, offers a quiet piano and orchestral background, and a slow droning horn section placed alongside effects of chatting in a coffee house or around a dinner table.
Lead single “Mud and Flame” offers a haunting taped delay of Scott’s vocals for a unique rhythmic element, while the drumming by Joe Smillie perfectly offsets that element and provides a strong generator for more effects and lightly added guitar by St. John. “Mud and Flame” accentuates the title of the album in its delivery of questions regarding identity and place, sung with a clarity and focus that presents the relevance and strength these details have for modern humanity. The concluding section speeds up the tempo for a pace that illuminates discovery and pressing forward outside a comfort zone, again details that demonstrate the presence of the album’s title, Welcome Strangers.
“Let Idle Hands”, a song centered still around duetted vocals, a strings section, and timbered drums suggests a David Byrne quality in delivery and style. The song is brisk, too, with a wailing outro giving into the loud strings of “It’s Winter” for a stark contrast. These tracks build upon a timeliness in their quality and songwriting as they progress in the album, with modern technology and elements the only clues of the album’s immediacy in its present. In the mid-album track “Young Sun” there is a definite break between the vocals presented on the album and the instrumentation that shifts the tone dramatically. Here a guitar intro followed by upbeat vocals detracts markedly from the melancholy that permeates the mood of the first five tracks, but the atmosphere and mood of an unknown quality remain strong. Coincidentally, the lyrics reference offering and equally rejecting change – immediately, as if celebrating acceptance and noting the paths one takes regardless of openness and opportunity.
Stylistically the album is solid, but the second half feels deliberately driven by faster rhythm and louder instrumentation. “Horns and Trumpets” and “Fast As Flows” both include an intro that pushes forward unexpectedly, while still enjoyably incorporating a majestic and precisely mixed atmosphere. The instrumentation is particularly louder on “Fast As Flows”, especially compared to the quieter environment presented in all the preceding album. Accordingly, the vocals are louder, and the mood is darker. Horns dramatically note shifts in direction and strings articulate a sense of the unknown. Quietly, this morphs into “The House”, the penultimate track and a bright, yet full of doom, track that articulates revelation and destruction before revving up growth and renewal in an increasingly cascading closing section. A break goes into “Phosphene Dream”, where connections are built across harmonizing vocals between Scott and St. John. The song documents the exploration of connection that results in awareness and knowledge, and optimistically celebrates the possibility presented by the new relationship.
Promotional material by the band highlighted their year-long writing and recording process in 2017 and the incorporation of scenic elements across Britain and friends, family, and many session musicians to compliment and round out the sound of the album. This information is hard to ignore given the strength of Welcome Strangers, and particularly affirming an idea that the album and its themes abandon and ignore developments in modern society that reject the unknown out of fear or selfishness. Whatever comes next or whatever introduction that follows is welcomed, be it strange or unknown, complementary or weird, and still friend and family. Modern Studies offer a beautiful document with Welcome Strangers, an album that is atmospheric, dramatic, and in its conclusion conveys a cinematic quality that highlights the closeness felt between each track and by the band themselves.