Fir Wave by Hannah PeelRelease date: March 26, 2021
Label: My Own Pleasure
Hannah Peel‘s new album gets its name from an observation that pine trees on a hillside shared the form of a sine wave. Peel draws inspiration from patterns in nature and sees them reflected in electronic music. It seems appropriate that Fir Wave arrives just as we set our clocks forward again, a technological artifice adapting the measure of our days to the indifferent turning of the earth. Largely made with synths and software its sounds are not digitally plastic or cold but emotional and evocative, unfolding organically. The music on Fir Wave feels suited to lighter evenings stretched out on warm breezes and scented with blossom.
It feels a bit glib to say the album is absolutely lovely, although it is. Beautiful then perhaps, but gently so. Like the slow changing of the seasons its charms are discreet but certain. The tracks are finely detailed beneath their sometimes deceptively simple surfaces. This music is rich with layers of sound and texture that open out on repeat listens but it is always filled with light and space. Warmth too, the overriding sense is of sound as a form of comfort. The one time it turns cooler is the icy chill that begins ‘Carbon Cycle’ which, as the title suggests, moves through a series of states. A low two note pulse, like a heartbeat or a moored boat bumping softly on the dock, gradually becomes the focus of your attention. Nothing is overly illustrative but it drifts through a sense of sadness as it slowly warms to something more peaceful.
The soft edged, anthemic house of ‘Emergence In Nature’ was either the first or last thing you were expecting here. The lead track ahead of release it’s an upbeat charmer with a bit of Underworld about it and its rush of excitement is unlike the album as a whole. Engineer TJ Allen collaborated with Peel on this and the other beat-driven track ‘Ecovocative’ where bell like synths sparkle over a low gurgling undercurrent. Generally the tracks glide past in beatless layers. The lengthy title track is hustled along by a lightweight rhythm like a toy soldier drumming in a marching band. Eventually he winds down and the fuzzy, melancholy electronics stretch out a little more before being joined by the steady presence of piano. The album unfolds with an understated magic, always with another modest surprise to delight you just around the corner.
Hannah Peel is now over a decade into an impressive and varied career but most likely came to your attention for 2017’s stunning Mary Casio: Journey to Cassiopeia. A space odyssey for analogue synth and brass band that was bold in conception and execution, an extraordinary success. Coming back down to earth from shooting through the universe Fir Wave is a humbler, less dramatic collection. It may not have the grandeur of the brass band or the slightly Wallace and Gromit back story but it is nonetheless an unalloyed pleasure.
The character of Mary Casio was partly inspired by synth pioneers Delia Derbyshire and Daphne Oram. That thread unspools itself a little further here as Peel was given permission to rework Derbyshire’s music from Electrosonic, a celebrated collection for library label KPM. The importance of Delia Derbyshire’s influence on British electronic music is hard to overstate and yet, even now, she often remains hidden in the back room. A couple of months ago when her music featured on a show somewhere like NTS or Resonance FM a friend was surprised to see a number of tweets expressing delight at this discovery. His assumption being that by now everyone with an interest knew who she was, that her achievement had belatedly been acknowledged.
If you only know her name for one thing, it’s the iconic Dr. Who theme. Composed by Ron Grainer, who handed it in to the BBC on an A4 sheet sketching out the melody and bass line, it was transformed by Derbyshire and The BBC Radiophonic Workshop into an iconic piece that shot experimental electronic music directly into millions of homes, firing countless young imaginations. The legend has it that Grainer was so taken aback by its extraordinary realisation that he joked “Did I really write this?” and suggested a co-composer credit. The BBC refused and it would be fifty years before Derbyshire was credited on the show for her work. Similar sidelining seems to have gone on with Electrosonic for which Delia appears to have done most of the work and received only 12.5% of the royalties.
Going back to Electrosonic it now sounds quite primitive, designed as library samples the pieces are short and raw edged, what was once startling modernism is now coated in several decades of nostalgia. There are many artists mining that particular rich seam for sounds and ideas but this is something entirely different, the link from Electrosonic to Fir Wave ends up being spiritual more than anything. Peel was not interested in reworking the compositions or directly using samples in her own compositions instead using them to build the digital instruments with which Fir Wave was created. This seems like the kind of forward thinking approach Delia would approve, reflecting less on the sound of the record than her inspirational practice.
Peel seems a worthy artist to carry that spirit onwards. Fir Wave is a fine album marked by her exquisite lightness of touch. Packed with a variety of atmospheres and glistening textures it is constantly moving but never feels dense or overworked. At 35 minutes it’s not especially long but I mean it in the best possible way when I say it feels like it’s only the first side, because it’s always seems to end too soon and I’d happily flip the tape over and listen to another half hour of this wonderful, glowing, sound.