Deep England by Gazelle Twin & NYXRelease date: March 19, 2021
Label: NYX Collective Records
Spring is beginning to crack the earth. The dark night of winter and the confinement of covid might finally be coming to an end. Outside, longer days bring hints that the Green Man is ready to unfurl his cloak across our pleasant land. Yet, even with a vaccine rolling out many of us still feel the suffocating sense we’re trapped in a death spiral. That the chances of emerging blinking into a more connected, more grateful, more pleasant land are vanishingly small. Let’s beat this pandemic so we can get back to destroying ourselves with our general idiocy and short term self interest, Rule Britannia! Deep England takes its name from a form of English exceptionalism that has blossomed like a rash in recent years. The Little Englander mentality scratching at it ’til it’s red raw.
It would be a narrow but not unfair reading to say Gazelle Twin’s 2018 album Pastoral was a response to fractures exposed by the Brexit vote and the often angry conversations that came pouring out of it. Much of this bad feeling had very little to do with our economic relationship to the EU and a lot more to do with our crumbling national sense of identity. Unexamined but strongly held ideas of what it meant to be English, delusions of faded imperial grandeur. Deep England bubbling up and boiling over. A thick stew of cherished myths, a prelapsarian fantasy of eternal order, “This other Eden, demi-paradise, this fortress built by Nature for herself”
Gazelle Twin mutated into a bright red trickster, dancing a merry jig along the fault lines between country and city, swilling a heady brew of history, myth, and the everyday, it vividly conjured up a tainted psychic landscape. Profoundly ill at ease, Pastoral seethed with claustrophobic industrial angst, brain blood pounding in its temples. For Deep England Gazelle Twin joins with electronic drone choir NYX to expand on those underlying themes, sweeping aside current symptoms (Brexit, Meghan Markle, our world beating covid death toll) and going further back to dig into the roots and soil of our sustaining myths. Dark truths and sentimental lies. It is a ritual and a lament, “a transcendental purge of the dizzying chaos of post-truth Britain.”
They describe this release as their debut which hopefully means there will be more to come because the pairing is ideal. NYX become something like the choir or band Bernholz always wanted, embodying and extending the multiple selves in her work into something more organic, with wider horizons. There’s unmistakably a different texture and space in this music to the sharp edged digital box of Pastoral. ‘Folly’ grows from a short burst of questions and vocal processing into a distorted, looping, bed for a disconcertingly visceral incantation. A petri dish of mutating identity, “what species is this?”
The first thing we heard from this album was ‘Fire Leap’, a circling three note phrase on recorder and a chanted rhyme. While it sounds ancient the song was written by Paul Giovanni for 70’s folk horror masterpiece The Wicker Man. The pinnacle of a very English occult trend the film’s unique atmosphere still resonates strongly almost 50 years on. As a cultural sign post of where this album was heading, it’s a hard one to miss. The Wicker Man pits pagan and protestant strands against one another without really picking sides. In the film ‘Fire Leap’ is sung by the young women of the island as they dance inside a stone circle, leaping naked though the fire. The uptight Sergeant Howie is aghast. I think it’s fair to say that if Pastoral found us struggling in Howie’s buttoned up world of tea rooms and church fetes then on Deep England we join him on the ride up to see Lord Summerisle. Discomfited by the connections we feel.
The album opens with a powerful cinematic sweep, church bells peal across the village green. Markers of time, tradition and faith. The countenance divine shines forth upon our clouded hills. The chimes sink into the island drone giving way to an older more ethereal sound. Long notes float out evoking wilder, emptier places, something more human, Celtic, pagan. It’s extraordinary how effective this is, how strong the mental images generated by these sounds. A short cut from manicured good manners into the ancient space of rivers and stone. It borders on manipulation of film cliché and maybe that’s the intention, you can imagine it as an establishing aerial shot in a Pixar movie. And why not? The broader conception of Deep England is basically Merry Olde England as imagined by Walt Disney, upright and assured, making a good forward defensive stroke in unblemished cricket whites. Continuity, certainty.
This scene setting tips us into the ambivalent litany of ‘Glory’ winding doubt into duty “you won’t see the old ancient/you will tell yourself it will be ok/you will take the liberty/you will serve the holy sentence” Gazelle Twin has long suppressed personality behind masks and costume, disappearing into their role or function as might any priesthood. The character stands somewhere in the gap between the teller and the tale, shifting in and out of identities. On ‘Better In My Day’ urgent rhythmic vocal loops hammer the fury of curdled nostalgia into a demented red mist mantra. It’s the most pointed and direct assault here but the nauseous ‘Throne’ might be the most unpleasant. It thrums with bad vibes, squatting in the seat of power, oozing malice and picking at ancient wounds “I gather your souls, eat your debts…”
In the heart of Deep England God and Country become one, patriotism is faith. This idea glints brightly in ‘Jerusalem’, our unofficial anthem. If you’ve never found yourself, in a church or school hall, or at a sporting event, pondering the meaning of Blake’s words then you’ve probably not been paying attention. On Pastoral it appeared as hold music on a municipal hotline, a ghost in the machine as Mr. Punch goads a concerned citizen. Here it expands in floating layers, its hallucinatory strangeness echoing down the years in multiple voices. Beginning with the sweetest and clearest solo it soon starts glitching, eliding the familiar melody, multiplying, drifting into chaos, descending into moans and ghostly prayers. From the divine into the dark satanic.
The two final tracks are new compositions that take us deeper into the gloom of ancient woods, tuning into the frequency below ground. ‘Deep England’ feels like excavating a long barrow, it’s dark and slippery down there, damp air and blood soaked earth. It resounds with a wordless essence for about 5 minutes and then a deep primal voice, like that of the very Green Man himself, growls “the damson drops, the willow weeps, the river overflows”. Across the album the lyrics make amazingly effective use of short phrases and repetition but ‘Deep England’s closing line, “my cul-de-sac, my kingdom” and the extraordinary way it is delivered is a revelatory moment.
The atavism of Deep England has grown fat on our fear of the future but it is a slow witted beast, a dog scared of its own flatulence. Pink men in football shirts threatening princess and pauper alike for imagined disrespect to God and Country because these threadbare notions are all they have left. Patriotism is so often ugly because its power is manipulated by the worst of us. Repressive ideology likes to wear the camouflage of common sense when fighting to claim our shared past for itself. The last refuge of the scoundrel indeed. This is going to get worse before it gets better but it’s less that the myth of Deep England is reasserting itself triumphant, more that its certainties are crumbling and reforming.
Perhaps appropriately Deep England seems unsure of what it is. Both a commentary and an invocation. There is fascination mixed with repulsion here, an agnostic mass for a lost identity that remains in flux, an exorcism of dark forces. Conceived for the stage it still feels a bit like a theatre piece more than an album. I can’t quite shake off the thought of how powerful it would be to witness as a performance. Possibly that’s just a result of a year without live shows but as mentioned above the soundtrack elements are strong. A soundtrack for a psychological horror in which a nation loses all sense of self. England’s blank sunken eyes stare back from the mirror as it mutters unconvincingly “I know who I am, I know who I am”