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The Shadow Ring - Life Review (1993-2003)

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Artist: The Shadow Ring

Album: Life Review (1993-2003)

Label: Kye

Review date: Feb. 26, 2009

“To be lost in a small coastal town, to be echoes right through Europe”

- The Shadow Ring’s “Mindart”

Back in 1998 or so, a friend of mine interviewed Graham Lambkin via mail for the ‘zine I was editing. Sending back his responses via post, Lambkin included a cassette of their then-unreleased Lighthouse double album, almost as an afterthought. When we dropped it into the tape player and let it rip, we were confused and perplexed in equal measure: What happened to The Shadow Ring? Where are the guitars? What are they doing? As far as quantum leaps go, they could have gone further (like an album of lute performances, I guess) but it was pretty astonishing. Their ‘first phase,’ from 1993 to 1997, was so unrelenting that their ‘second phase,’ after what seemed their first pause for breath, caught us off guard.

Life Review, possibly the least expected (and thus most welcome) retrospective of recent times, thus offers the chance to take in the Shadow Ring’s history. Back in their day, without the over-arching context of any coherent ‘English underground’ (except for lone figures like Matthew Bower), the Shadow Ring were absolute anomalies. And while they fit the Siltbreeze stable, the American label with which they are most identified, the overtly colloquial nature of their first batch of records also placed them at a remove from the less localized voices of, say, Marcia Bassett’s UN or Charalambides.

To be honest, I know some people who found that colloquialism hard to get past, and if it’s still an issue for you, Life Review is not ‘your bag.’ (That this also makes you a fool is little compensation, but it is the truth.) Like their most obvious predecessors, such as early Fall, the Door & The Window, or the Prats, their music could only have come from their bedrooms, their towns and cities, and these spaces are indelibly imprinted on the records. For Shadow Ring fans, Folkestone may well be mythical, even if the reality is rather more prosaic. Songs like “City Lights” suggest the mundane nature of the everyday in small towns in England, something I always thought translated well – mundane small towns are mundane small towns, whether England or the U.S. or Australia.

The Shadow Ring were mythologists, in their own abstract, sarcastic way, which explains the lyrical threads that run through their songs – rats and mice (“who says vermin are shy?”), prawns, domesticity, washing/cleanliness and its opposite, and so on. And in Lambkin, Daren Harris and Tim Goss, we have three great observers of the everyday. I remember in an interview I read back in the 1990s, Lambkin told a great story about a friend who would only eat cereal out of a mug, so that if someone walked in the room it would appear as though he was drinking: “That, to me, is the stuff of songs,” was Lambkin’s finishing comment. (And if that’s an apocryphal tale, misremembered through time, then it only proves just how potent that everydayness is, how much it’s the Shadow Ring’s brief.)

For many of us, the Shadow Ring’s legend rests on those early records, represented on Life Review’s first disc. City Lights and Put the Music in its Coffin feature deliberated, repetitive songs, on guitars struck and hammered into de-tunings. Riffs get worried into the ground; percussion clatters and clacks alongside, slipping in and out of time, emptying the cutlery drawer on the kitchen floor; the vocals are arch, droll, declaimed. With Goss joining in 1995, they add electronics to their armory; the resultant album, Wax-Work Echoes (released on Bruce Russell’s Corpus Hermeticum imprint), is the group at their most unstable – represented here particularly well by “You’re Holding All Your Feathered Stock.” Goss’s electronics had started to unshackle the group from their already loose grasp on ‘song.’

The “Mouse On Mouth”/“Mouth On Mouse” single, opening the second disc, is the fulcrum of the Shadow Ring’s recorded output: their catchiest riff, coupled with one of their best, driest vocal deliveries, opens out for stretches of bubbling, starchy electronics. The following Hold Onto I.D. was their consolidation. In retrospect an excellent record, it perhaps suffered for being sandwiched between their two greatest moments, Wax-Work Echoes and Lighthouse. This was the point that people seemed to drop out of touch with the Shadow Ring, and thus this is where Life Review really shines, for Lighthouse is their great leap. Dropping the guitars, picking up pianos, going further into electro-acoustics and tape, it’s the group at their most potent – and hilarious, as on “Mindart,” where they repeatedly collapse in fits of laughter.

For someone who lost track of the Shadow Ring after Lighthouse, Life Review’s second disc is astonishing. The scope of their music expanded considerably. On 2001’s Lindus, casios sing through tape mangling, field recordings of home life arc and stretch around saturated voices, wind instruments drift across the purring of power grids. And by the second disc’s end, with “Man On The Land” and “Start Repeating,” we’re in pure electronic territory – the latter, in particular, comes closer to the beautifully pared-back experiment of Kluster, or early ’80s tape-trader Kosmische, than anything you’d have expected from the nascent Shadow Ring of 1993.

These final recordings also point the way out to Lambkin’s tape works on the recent Salmon Run, and his collaboration with Jason Lescalleet, The Breadwinner. But they’re also strong epitaph for the Shadow Ring, revealed by Life Review as some of England’s most potent and dedicated iconoclasts. A lot of writers pay lip service to artists ‘defining their own world,’ which usually means they’re blowing smoke up a fashion-model-cum-songwriter’s ass by adding two to one and ending up with three. But the Shadow Ring really were hermeticists, in the true sense of the word. Their world is complex and at times near-impenetrable, which makes the rewards of grappling with their universe all the greater.

By Jon Dale

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