High Broad Field

despite a career total of roughly two-dozen releases since 1990, English violinist Matt Howden remains relatively unknown outside smaller circles across the Atlantic. Howden first became more widely noticed apart from his instrumental work when he joined Tony Wakeford's pioneering neo-folk group Sol Invictus, a collaboration which spanned several albums, including the The Blade, In a Garden Green and Thrones. More recently, he took part in the latest incarnation of the Austrian industrial group Der Blutharsch. But it is Sieben that exhibits Howden's skill as performer, lyricist, and singer all in one mired and absorbing pose.

High Broad Field is the sixth Sieben album to date and follows two of his most involved concept albums, Sex & Wildflowers and Ogham Inside the Night. Presented in play written format, the album marks a handsome progression from both works, centered on progenitive hymns, pagan culture, and English poesy adaptable to a world audience through erotic, Celtic themed movements that temper the somewhat archaic lyricism.

The album was inspired by the Yorkshire Mystery Cycle and the area of High Bradfield, located in South Yorkshire. The village is home to St Nicolas Church, built in the 15 th century and set within green miles of expansive rolling landscape. Photographs reveal a typical graveyard on the Church grounds, the unkempt grass slowly erasing the outlines of stone. Just behind the whole structure is a large earth formation known as Bailey Hill. It is this hill that Howden imagines as the "burial mound" that anchors the nine spoken parts allotted to this tale of a Christian knight who is miraculously raised centuries after his death.
"If heaven Harbours all this charm,
The sparkles eyes, the limp wrist and arm.
To embrace but not to grip,
To beg but call it pray –
Meekly contesting at heaven's gate"
If Medieval Romanticism fuels the album's plot, pragmatism informs the basics of its unique sound, formed by a series of violin loops overlapping with incantatory repetition. In order to perform live the same as on record this has become Howden's signature motif. And while the violin is used here both as a timekeeper and vehicle for emotions, it's complemented by the faint percussion of the Cahon, lending an earthen timbre to each track.

Scenes flow seamlessly into the next, bouncing with genteel raps while beats resound like the hundred small movements of a forest canopy. Man is reborn a blind maggot from ancient mulch; Knight and squire stumble through a world of divine silence, greet Lucifer upon the old mound and follow hungry cats grinning behind headstones. A certain playfulness offsets the story's severe tenor. Big ideas are wrapped inside a calming atmosphere as intenerate melodies recall the scent of rain, shadows peeling across fields from high above and a warm sun that rises as exalted Spring. The tender interplay between the cast, rounded out by Neil McSweeney, Lloyd James, and, in an inspired choice, Howden's own daughter, April as the voice of God further add on sensitivity, almost to fault.
"I know now what I am – In nature's hand. The Oncoming Storm"
Next to the jutting sprouts and phallic stones of Sieben’s past endeavors High Broad Field is an emotional leveling, a subtler and more literate album by comparison, though hardly dispassionate; what covers this field is the cloud and never the storm. But what it gains by putting aside heavy-handed execution is a compelling meditation on faith and eternity, as the knight finally shakes off the temptation and fealty of the old order and re-assumes his unpretty but dutiful role as compost; so we each come to know our part, eventually.

(Included with the CD is a bonus DVD of the film High Broad Field, directed by João Paulo Simões. Shot in and around the areas of Rivelan Valley, High Bradfield, Whirlow Hall and Brincliffe Edge in the UK, the film is meant as a track-by track companion piece to the album, which makes fine use verdant pathways, century’s old stone, entangling forests and snow covered hills with a parallel story involving the two new characters of the Templar and the Nymph.)

Reviewed by: Todd DePalma
Reviewed on: 2007-02-15
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