18 May 2024

Review: Rubricator by Sam Bambery

From The Sampler, 2:30 pm on 18 May 2024
Sam Bambery

Photo: Loren Jalyn Kett

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When Christchurch musician Sam Bambery made his 2022 debut, he set out to write in the alt-country genre, citing specific inspiration from fellow Ōtautahi residents Delaney Davidson, and Marlon Williams. 

He called it Songs About Sailors, which runs amusingly counter to what the words ‘country music’ might conjure up in your mind, but fits his hometown nicely. 

Its followup Rubricator is as ambitious as that unfamiliar word may signal, wandering beyond the margins of country and folk, and dotted with welcome eccentricities.

'Rubrication' refers to adding handwritten text to a manuscript, usually in red. The liner notes to this album stress that the red text denotes to the reader that they should pay attention. Part of the fun is wondering what Bambery is saying with that title, but presumably he’s the rubricator, and is telling you what to pay attention to. 

Lines jump out, like “what a fate, to stare at walls in a passive way” on ‘The Burnout’, or, more elliptical, “when the dust in the corner resembles my mother’s trauma”, on the track ‘24.01’

Recording for the album took place across “photography studios and lounge rooms” according to the notes, but never sounds like it. Recording was handled by Ryan Chin, Thomas Isbister, and De Stevens, who also co-produced. 

Those three are accomplished musicians in their own right, and there’s more premium local talent throughout the record, including Hannah Everingham, and Mackenzie Hollebon from Juno Is.

The care taken with creating a different sonic environment on each track is Rubricator’s most immediately impressive aspect, particularly on tracks like ‘Tricks of Light’, which weaves washes of noise and layered harmonies into its delicate arrangement.

That’s about as atmospheric as the album gets, with Bambery trying out a range of moods across it, channeling local indie-pop outfits like The Chills and Phoenix Foundation as he goes. 

On ‘Doctor’ the mood is more amiable, his voice close-miked and double tracked as he sings “I’m alive”, before slightly ominous piano and vocal harmonies enter on the response “I know, but what for”.

Throughout Rubricator there are carefully-chosen instrumental flourishes, guitar torture, track-enveloping sound design, and periodic cassette recordings of disembodied voices. 

It’s all very considered, like Bambery lived with the album in his head for a while before bringing it into the world. A hint of mystery hangs over things too, which is only deepened by that title and his elaboration on it, in its way as ornate as these well-crafted tunes.