REVIEWS FOR WELCOME JOY AND WELCOME SORROW
“These are tunes that have been stripped down and reassembled to run on the kind of fuel that puts you into orbit. (Spiro) create ecstatic, interlocking, intricate musical patterns that are as hypnotising and beguiling as the most complex Fibonacci sequences. On their fifth album, its title taken from a John Keats poem, they reach new heights…though they’re from wildly different worlds, I’m reminded of Calvin Harris’ electronic hits in terms of the dynamics of build and release in their music, although Spiro are infinitely more subtle of course. Welcome Joy and Welcome Sorrow is their finest studio work so far, but the power they summon up live makes them a must-see experience”
*****Top of the World. Tim Cumming, Songlines.
“With their previous album, Kaleidophonica, Spiro proved that they are true English originals, this new set follows the same highly individual approach, though with even greater confidence and less reliance on traditional themes… This is a subtle but exhilarating band.”
****Robin Denselow, The Guardian
“Beautiful like lace or cobwebs”
**** Nick Coleman, The Independent
“A wild ride of emotions… They’ve done it again: Welcome joy, indeed”
*****Ian Kearey, Froots
“Cogs and gears mesh seamlessly”
****David Honigmann, The Financial Times
“Spiro is a strange, indefinable, delightful band of merry musicians which have developed a style so spare, so unaffected, and so melodic that you’d swear you’d heard all the tunes before. Drawing on classical music, folk traditions of Britain, Spiro is unlike anything else on record…adventurous and open minded, the band is thoroughly a 21st century band which has left behind categories and labels in pursuit of music that speaks to them most deeply…on each track, Spiro demonstrates it’s intimate communication skills, melodic finesse, a finely-honed mastery of style and elegance. All of these 14 tracks are treated with dazzling virtuosity, tenderness and humour.”
– Nenad Georgievski, All About Jazz
“As far as I know, this Bristol, England, quartet has little or no competition. First off, they are completely instrumental – featuring acoustic stringed instruments for the most part, along with accordion and piano. Secondly, most of their material is original. But what’s most striking about Spiro is that they occupy an unusual position, straddling the folk, classical, and even rock worlds. Listening to this CD in one sitting feels like listening to an informal symphony, with each track making up a “movement” or two.”
– Ken Roseman, Sing Out
“I’m drawn towards cinematic music which is why I’ve been swept away with Welcome Joy and Welcome Sorrow, the newest album from British group Spiro…(It) reminds me of Thomas Newman’s score for Scent of a Woman and Michael Nyman’s work on Jane Campion’s The Piano…. (It) is a must-have for those looking for a window to new worlds.”
– Music Without Words.
“Music of rare beauty”
– JP, Acoustic Magazine
“Welcome Joy and Welcome Sorrow (named after a poem by Keats) feels like something of an apotheosis for the Bristol- based quartet…one of the most refreshingly listenable albums of the year”
– Joan Crump, EFDSS
“I would run, not walk, to the store and purchase this disc.”
– Raul da Gama, World Music Report
REVIEWS FOR KALEIDOPHONICA
“Spiro are that rarity: true English originals”
***** Robin Denselow, The Guardian
“Genuinely unlike anything else, and exciting, rewarding and gorgeous in equal measure.”
– Ian Kearey, fRoots
“Cinematic, breathtaking and beautiful”
*****Top of the World. Andy Letcher, Songlines magazine
– Nick Coleman, The Independent
“Spiro rightly won wide-spread acclaim for their explorative previous album, 2009’s Lightbox, which was characterised by alluring subtleties and infectious tangents. But this new set takes their intuitive appetite for pursuing the hidden contours of music a whole fantastic leap further.
“Based in Bristol, but with hearts, roots and inspiration firmly locked in the north of England, the free–thinking ingenuity of violinist Jane Harbour, accordionist Jason Sparkes, mandolin player Alex Vann and guitarist John Hunt produces spectacular instrumental gymnastics that appear to bear little relation to anything anybody else is doing.
Folk tunes may be their calling card, but the orchestral, semi–classical edge, the sudden dives into dance rhythms, the engulfing beauty and the sheer, mind-boggling complexity of their playing pitch them far beyond all conventional notions of genre or style. Every time you think you’ve nailed a track, it transports you somewhere else entirely; you get sucked into the solid groove they lovingly build around Hunt’s guitar on tracks like Spit Fire Spout Rain and Yellow Noise, only to reel sideways as they whip the rug from under your feet when mandolin, accordion and/or violin imperceptibly switch focus, mood and texture. Even on the seemingly minimalist and rather jaunty string–led Softly Robin, the whole piece takes on a darker and more sinister hue the moment Sparkes arrives in the mix with chiming piano accordion, for this is the band which works not in notes but in contrasting colours.
There’s plenty of traditional music – The Weavers Hornpipe pops up within the dexterous Rose Engine and You’ve Been Too Long Away Willie Gray is a prominent ingredient of the vibrant The City and the Stars – but it’s craftily enmeshed in the unpredictable ebb and flow of Harbour’s cinematic arrangements. Musos will love it, but Kaleidophonica has an all–embracing heart, too, that crosses boundaries of genre and taste, happily devoid of self–indulgence or grandstanding.
You can talk about Philip Class, Steve Reich and Penguin Cafe Orchestra as influences and kindred spirits, as people often do, but the elusive threads which almost magically turn Spiro’s ambitious ideas and virtuoso musicianship into a cohesive, heart–warming and often strangely affecting wall of sound joyously isolate them from the crowd.”
– Colin Irwin, BBC Music
REVIEWS FOR LIGHTBOX
“Some bands achieve greatness early, others have to wait a while. The magnificent Spiro had to labour for 17 years, mostly in obscurity, until ”The White Hart’, their breezy theme for Johnny Kingdom’s TV series A Year on Exmoor, netted them a deal with Real World. And about time too. This, their long-awaited second album, will not only ensure that they finally get the attention they deserve, but is already a strong contender for best folk album of the year.
Though many of the pieces are self-penned, Spiro stay true to their roots, lifting the bonnet on traditional English tunes – mostly Northern – to find the complex rhythmic and harmonic structures that under-gird them. Mandolin, fiddle, guitar and accordion whirl together gyroscopically, their undulating arpeggios fitting together like the parts of some intricately crafted machine. While the influence of minimalism and techno is obvious, the electrifying result is uniquely theirs. All the pieces possess a visual, theatrical quality. ‘Pop’ conjures up the play of light and shade across a rugged landscape while ‘Binatone’ begins and ends in rainfall. ‘I Fear You Just as I Fear Ghosts’ contains an odd sadness that tugs throughout it. Purists may yet find Spiro baffling, but by placing contemporary musical influences around a traditional core, the band is only doing what folk musicians have always done. Rich, moving and cunningly wrought, Lightbox offers up the purest folk. Spiro should take heart – it was worth the wait.”
***** Andy Letcher, Songlines – Top of the World Album
“Acoustic-folk four-piece for people who can’t abide acoustic-folk four-pieces, and those who can.
Guitar, mandolin, violin and accordion – if that’s enough for you, then enjoy your trad-folk ghetto. It’s not enough for Spiro, because Spiro are like Detroit techno played by a travelling band out of a Hardy novel – or Steve Reich playing the cider-scented backroom of a village pub. Intense and minimal, they roll out complex arrangements with such ease that you feel your heart lift a few inches above its normal resting place. This is folk music that would appeal to people who, on the whole, hate the very idea of folk music. Tracks like Binatone (Binatone!), Shaft (as in Bobby Shaftoe) and The White Hart build higher and higher, instruments shifting above one another in a lattice-work of minutely observed solos. Melodically inventive and emotionally compelling, this is a fantastic record.”
– Rob Fitzpatrick, The Word
“Jon Hunt (guitar), Jason Sparkes (accordion), Alex Vann (mandolin) and Jane Harbour (violin) confound by subtle means. The first listen to this, their third album, will probably make you smile a little; enjoying the rolling, jaunty pastoralism, the faux-jig Englishness and the feeling that beneath the surface lurks something far more intricate than is immediately obvious. But then you peruse the sleeve and note the words, ‘…recorded live in the studio with no overdubs’. Blimey.
While all critics and fans so far have been keen (and correct) to point out the parallels here between Spiro and systems music specialists such as Steve Reich or with other contemporary folk (ish) ensembles like Penguin Cafe Orchestra, there is a USP to Spiro’s music. For one, it is far closer to folk traditions than it almost dares to admit. The rather arbitrary division of traditional and modern forms erroneously denies the linear heritage; for what is a jig or a reel, if not systems music before the term was coined? Secondly, their adherence to scales and instrumentality that all come with attendant rural connotations means that it takes a while to realise that this is staggeringly complex stuff.
Partly produced by Simon Emmerson, the man behind the Imagined Village project, Lightbox has no solos and no showboating, but considerable skill. Much like King Crimson’s gamelan-like explorations in the 80s, this is cerebral music, precise and well thought out. If that makes you think of something cold and unfeeling, you’d be wrong.
Melodies that bleed through the warp and weft as on Underland or The White Hart can be breathtakingly moving, and their ear for understanding how to build something towards a dazzling climax means that even if you don’t experience them on disc, you should most definately catch them live. Without a doubt it’ll be quite a spectacle.”
– Chris Jones, BBC Music
“The folk scene – or rather, the experimental acoustic folk-influenced scene – is becoming increasingly sophisticated and adventurous, and Spiro are leading exponents of this new genre. They are an instrumental quartet, playing guitar, accordion, violin and mandolin, who rework traditional folk melodies into stirring, rhythmic and often complex pieces that make use of the repeated phrases and patterns of systems music. In some ways, they are like a British folk answer to the Penguin Cafe Orchestra – though with a less exotic musical lineup – while echoing the tight interplay of that brilliant acoustic folk trio Lau. The quartet have developed a style in which there are no improvised solos, just tight arrangements in which the various instruments all provide the melodies and rhythmic settings. The mood is always changing, from the drifting and lyrical I Fear You Just As I Fear Ghosts (they specialise in memorable titles) to the slinky and jaunty Antrobus. This would be great film soundtrack music – and I mean that as a compliment.”
**** Robin Denselow, The Guardian
“Spiro’s third album, their debut for Peter Gabriel’s Real World label, is being accompanied by a lot of advance publicity of the sort that really has to be justified by the music – and it is triumphantly so. The previous recordings, interesting as they are, don’t anticipate the leap into the full-blown acoustic wall of sound of Lightbox, which brings together traditional sources and minimalist/futurist composition in an intriguing and exciting manner. If this review appears to split the two influences, it’s only for convenience (and brevity): on the CD there’s no difference.
The traditional tunes found and reworked are from the north of England: The White Hart, Mr. Keys and Altrincham Round come from John Offord’s Cheshire collection and bring out lush, rounded harmonic variations: the tune melody comes in and goes out again, split between Jason Sparkes’ accordeon and Jane Harbour’s violin, with the driving guitar of Jon Hunt holding down the rhythm and providing the thrust of the swells of sound that characterise the group. In Shaft, based on Bobby Shaftoe in Peacock’s Tunes, the feel of the Northumbrian pipes is never far away from the accordeon and fiddle, while Alex Vann’s mandolin weaves in and around everything in a virtuoso performance of offbeats and spiky interventions. There’s more piping influence on Pop (Highland Laddie), for me one of the big highlights, and The Radio Sky (The Bonny Pit Lad), and even some Playford (The Lost Heart and Grimstock in A Small Light in The Far West), but it’s all about using the parts as much as a whole tune, and the way the instruments interweave is positively thrilling and very big on emotional impact: the few occasions when two or more play in unison are extremely effective.
As for the non-traditional pieces, the influences include (to these ears) Michael Nyman, Steve Reich and the Penguin Cafe Orchestra in the use of repetition, slow development and sparse, lyrical arrangement, but as said above, it’s very hard to tell where the tune comes from, traditional sources or modern ones – both are extended and mutated in the same way. Antrobus, Wolves and I Fear You Just As I Fear Ghosts could all be soundtracks to visual art, and Captain Say Catastrophe is a jaunty monster of a track. Where Spiro stand out from other practitioners of this type of music is that it’s all live, without any tapes of loops or effects – both on stage and in recordings the slight shifts and changes build up as the pieces progress, like the moving parts of a precision watch being constantly experimented on and realigned. But it’s in no way mechanical: this is one of the most human variants of minimalism I’ve encountered. As Mr Warhol put it: “Oh, this is fabulous.”
– Ian Kearey, fROOTS
“Produced by Simon Emmerson, this album isn’t quite what it seems. The Bristol band are imbued in the culture of informal sessions and you assume this is another album of dance tunes with a strong English feel. But within the fiddle/mandolin/guitar/accordion framework rhythms go haywire, tunes somersault and the sound adopts darker, edgier twists. Refreshingly unnerving.”
**** Colin Irwin, Mojo
“Violin, accordion, mandolin, guitar, with viola/cello variants. Ultra-detailed arrangements. Lots of forward drive. No affect. It’s folk music of a kind, rooted geographically in the English West Country, but not as you’d expect it to sound. It steams from point A to whatever point it’s going with all the train-like persistence of a Steve Reich composition. In pieces such as ‘I Fear You Just as I Fear Ghosts’ it exhibits other properties, which pulsate with gospel trenchancy. An oddly compelling, strangely soulful music of mind and body.”
**** Nick Coleman, The Independent on Sunday
“Spiro belong at the more experimental end of the acoustic folk scene, where the idioms of English folk music meet the strategies of contemporary minimalism and systems music. The emphasis is entirely on ensemble playing, in which traditional soloing is replaced by a constantly shifting focus on different instruments within the whole. The chugging, insistently repeating rhythms and strands of clearly folk-derived melody are interweaved in tightly arranged patterns to beguiling and often complex effect. The obvious empathy between violinist Jane Harbour, piano accordion player Jason Sparkes, mandolin player Alex Vann and guitarist Jon Hunt, which underlies that intricacy of execution is all the more impressive when you consider that the disc was recorded live in the studio, with no overdubs.”
**** The Scotsman
“‘Lightbox’ is a breathtaking piece of work from an amazing, idiosyncratic acoustic world that transcends Spiro’s apparently conventional folk-group set-up of accordion, mandolin and guitar. Their instrumental sound might suggest bluegrass or English trad but the complex originality of their tunesmithing can equally be considered alongside composers like Philip Glass or Michael Nyman. It’s not just a studio project, however, as their triumphant, tent-busting WOMAD debut proved – Spiro absolutely rock on stage. Each of Lightbox’s 17 tracks takes a comparatively simple melodic idea and imposes a superbly crafted machinery that exploits the full range of each instrument as well as the harmonic and rhythmic potential of the tune. The dazzling skilful playing means there is almost no limitation to this process and, time and time again, smart surprises add new depths to the music to keep you listening intently and, above all, smiling.”
***** Tony Benjamin, Venue
“Spiro are an English folk quartet (guitar, mandolin, accordion and violin, for the most part), who take traditional tunes from Playford’s Dancing Master and similarly venerable collections and play it with the Swiss precision of systems musicians. In the process, tunes tooled for dancing take on the pulse of Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians or the Penguin Cafe Orchestra’s “Music for a Found Harmonium”. Simon Emmerson’s production is bright and clear, with each instrument taking its turn.”
**** David Honigmann, Financial Times
“New music (mostly) with its roots deep in the music of the British Isles, Spiro give a modern twist to traditional dance (that’s dance as in John Playford’s Dancing Master, circa 1651). Not by anything as obvious as electrification or eccentric instrumentation – the quartet of strings plus squeezebox remain resolutely acoustic. No, Spiro’s achievement is to combine clarity of line with a driving rhythm. Folksy melodies repeat and ripple and interweave to form an intricate sonic mesh, while the sweeping rhythms invoke minimalist music of Steve Reich and Philip Glass. The results have the hallucinatory effect of trance, albeit trance with incredible vitality. Not many English folk records find their way onto Peter Gabriel’s Real World label, but then there are few English folk records of the sublime individuality of Lightbox.”
**** City Life
“It takes an inspirational amount of self-belief to sustain yourself in a musical career at the best of times, and even more so when your music’s originality defies categorisation. Since their emergence in 1993 as The Famous Five, it was clear that Bristol-based Spiro were not your average acoustic instrumental act and, over 16 tenacious years, their music has refined itself into something genuinely unique. More importantly, perhaps, it has also caught the ears of Peter Gabriel, no less, and thus found its way onto the Real World label with the release of the superb ‘Lightbox’ CD. The album is a beautifully recorded statement of Spiro’s musical world where arrangements that might befit anthemic rock music are harnessed around thematic tunes that somehow tell their own wordless story, elaborated with insistence and the cosmic precision of an antique astrolabe. The results sound classical and folky, ancient and modern and (above all) emotionally charged and spirit-reviving – Gabriel has described it as ‘soulful’ and he’s right. Each member of the quartet – Jane Harbour (violin), Alex Vann (mandolin), Jason Sparkes (accordion) and Jon Hunt (guitar/cello) – is a superb musician, capable of using the full range of sounds their instrument offers and able to work in a complete empathetic unity. Add to this their compositional imagination and rhythmic intensity and you have a musical experience like no other and one that, finally, is about to get its proper recognition.”
– Tony Benjamin, Venue
“High-octane, mesmerizing music.”
– Pete Lawrence, former Artistic Director, The Big Chill
“Spiro are at the forefront of the new wave of inspirational English acoustic music –unique arrangements that transport you into gorgeous landscapes. Essentially English, beautifully brilliant with timeless melodies.”
– Karen Tweed
“Spiroʼs music defies categorization … brilliantly played and arranged, lyrical yet groovy, traditional yet contemporary, raucous yet tender.”
– Max Richter, composer
“Unsettling, exhilarating and highly impressive … Fascinating and, I suspect, unique.”