Elliott Childs lends an ear to the third album from British experimental folk musician Ben Howard.
Ben Howard is a UK musician who caught some attention early this decade with the upbeat, contemporary folk music of his debut album Every Kingdom.
But his second album I Forget Where We Were marked a significant departure, with its more brooding ambient mood.
And this more experimental territory seems to be where Howard feels most comfortable because his latest album Noonday Dream is very much in that same vein.
Howard has acknowledged the late, experimental-folk musician John Martyn as an influence and it’s not hard to see why.
Like Martyn, Howard has moved from a fairly traditional style of songwriting to a far more abstract approach. Both too are gifted guitar players, unafraid of using new technology to alter the sound of their instruments.
There are elements of Martyn’s seminal 1977 album One World to be heard on Noonday Dream, especially when it comes to some of the sounds that Howard coaxes from his guitar.
One prime example comes early in the album with the soaring, delay-drenched guitar lines in Nica Libres At Dusk, that Howard employs to resemble the distant, echoing cry of birds.
But no matter how much Martyn’s influence is on show here, Noonday Dream is far from a simple pastiche. Howard is also a producer and he seems to have developed his songwriting in tandem with his technical abilities in the years between albums, allowing him to intertwine the production and songwriting processes to great effect.
He combines the intricate, fingerpicked acoustic guitar of his earlier work with heavily processed electric guitar, synths and layered backing vocals that have also been subjected to digital manipulation to create dense, evocative soundscapes.
When stretched over long, indulgent tracks like 'A Boat To An Island On The Wall', these sounds evolve and shift several times with new voices emerging briefly before giving way to a fresh sound or texture.
It’s unsurprising that it’s been four years between Ben Howard albums as Noonday Dream is an incredibly intricate piece of work. But despite all the attention to detail, there is still a looseness to the sound of Noonday Dream.
For all the layering of instruments and sounds, there’s plenty of room for guitar and synth lines to bounce off of each other or for echo and feedback to overlap, often making it unclear as to who’s playing what.
And if that sounds like a description of cacophony…well sometimes it’s not far off, but it’s always in service of the song and it rarely feels messy or unintended.
It’s this mix of technical exploration, tonal experiments and developed songwriting that make Noonday Dream Ben Howard’s most accomplished album yet.