This feature originally appeared in The Herald Newspaper (Scotland) on September 21, 2011, under the heading FORGET THE TOYS, THIS IS PLAYING FOR REAL.
The toy-box may have been discarded, but there is much to entertain in Remember Remember’s second album.
The brainchild of Glasgow multi-instrumentalist Graeme Ronald, Remember Remember conjures psychedelic melodies, ambient vistas and the vivid minimalism of Reich and Glass. Signed to Mogwai’s Rock Action label, Ronald is about to release his striking second album, The Quickening.
It’s the follow-up to Remember Remember’s 2008 self-titled debut, and sees the former kingpin of The Royal We and Multiplies embrace the orchestra where once he used a loop-station and toys. He exchanges sellotape for saxophones; cigarette lighters for string quartets.
“With the first album there were only three people in the band, and none of us was a drummer, so we had to find other ways of creating rhythms,” Ronald explains. “That’s where a lot of the objects – staplers, scissors – came about.”
Did Ronald actively seek to explore broader instrumental territories on his new album? This chimes with The Quickening’s migratory backdrop of Egyptian Surf, Middle Eastern modes and Pagan ceremonials. “It’s a lot to do with the band. To some extent I’ve been writing with them, and their instruments, in mind,” he says of Andy Brown (drums), James Swinburne (woodwind), Joanne Murtagh (percussion), Joseph Quimby (guitar), Steven Kane (guitar) and Tommy Stuart (synthesiser) – the same ensemble who backed his 2010 RR Scorpii EP.
“It was also a matter of circumstance. When we were in Chem 19 [where they recorded The Quickening], we had access to a vibraphone, electric pianos – it would have been ridiculous not to take advantage of that and play it all on toys,” he laughs.
The means of expression have evolved since his debut, but Ronald’s artistic impetus remains. “Because it’s non-literal and non-specific, it’s hard to tell where my music comes from,” he says. “And that’s what I love about instrumental music: it’s global; it transcends language. Everyone can understand melody, and yet it’s very personal – there are no lyrics to give it any obvious meaning.”
If his dramatic approach is universal, it also resonates closer to home. Scotland boasts a fertile landscape of contemporary instrumental artists – from label bosses and post-rock overlords Mogwai, through electro-prog stable-mates Errors, to eloquent axe-master RM Hubbert, whose nylon-strung guitar shapes illuminate The Quickening.
How did Hubbert’s involvement arise? “It was just a really nice coincidence – Hubby was in the studio next door. I love his music and felt a bit nervous about asking him, but he was really into it,” Ronald recalls. “What he ended up playing was amazing.”
Hubbert’s contribution on the penultimate track, One Happier, is one of several optimistic signifiers on The Quickening. There is much darkness, it has to be said – Hey Zeus is a nightmarish, string-drawn undertaking, and there are titular references to demons. Most chilling of all, to these anxious ears, are recurring vestiges of Jeff Wayne’s terrifying rock opera, War of the Worlds.
But there is also light: its shimmering motifs and intricacies evoke Bjork’s Vespertine, or Boards of Canada’s Geogaddi, and appear to give The Quickening a sense of brightness. Or am I chasing hope in glockenspiels and major keys where there is none?
“Not at all,” he says. “Throughout writing and recording I did think, for whatever reason, ‘this is a really bleak album’. But then I had these two songs that form the end of it – One Happier and John Candy.”
One Happier is, suggests Ronald, an emotional signpost. “The dial on the record literally goes one happier at that point,” he says. “It’s basically a [protracted] Spinal Tap joke – you know – that whole thing about going one louder. That song is one happier because it’s in d-major, whereas d-minor, according to Spinal Tap, is the saddest key.” He laughs and apologises for our unscheduled music theory tutorial.
“And then there’s [swansong] John Candy which is just ridiculously happy,” Ronald continues. “But an album to me should be like a journey, so that these bleak, dark moments eventually lead to this essentially happy ending.”
What they lead to is an album that is disquieting, serious and sublime – and that strikes a significant chord of hope. “A song without lyrics is not without meaning,” he says. As if we could forget.