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Magnetic North: Orkney Symphony of the Magnetic North

Reviewed By: Andy Cassidy
Label: Full Time Hobby
Format: CD

'Symphony of the Magnetic North' is the first album by the Magnetic North, a trio formed by Orcadian Erland Cooper. Featuring the vocals and orchestral arrangements of Hannah Peel (whose 2011 album 'Broken Wave' earned enthusiastic reviews), ex-Blur and the Verve man Simon Tong and Orcadian multi-instrumentalist Cooper, the group was formed specifically to record this album. The genesis of the album is somewhat unusual. Erland Cooper claims that he was visited in a dream by Orcadian Betty Corrigall, the so-called Lady of Hoy. Corrigall committed suicide in the late 1770s after being becoming pregnant by a visiting sailor.

According to Cooper, Corrigall was quite specific (in his dream) about what she wanted for the album, providing him with song titles for the album (based on Orcadian place names) and even playing segments of the finished album for him. “We have endeavoured to serve Betty and tried to produce the album she had in mind,” say the group. “We hope she is pleased.”

The album opens with 'Stromness', featuring an airy, ghostly vocal from Peel backed by a soft brass section. It is an exercise in wordless beauty, in some ways reminiscent of 'Our Prayer' by the Beach Boys, and it serves as a great mood-setter. 'Stromness' fades into second track 'Bay of Skail', an acoustic piece featuring some accomplished vocal harmonies between Cooper and Peel. The track features brass and string sections, but remains wonderfully understated.

The album takes something of an unexpected detour on third track 'Hi Life'. Featuring a beat veering towards dance and some judicious use of synthesiser, the track offers a different slant on the band and their various abilities for arrangement and musicianship.

'Old Man of Hoy' is a wonderfully arranged piece, featuring a gentle vocal duet, acoustic guitar, strings, an emphatic brass section and what sounds like a toy piano. The track sounds like a folk lullaby and for me it is one of the stand-out tracks on the album.

Lead single 'Rackwick' opens with an organ and string section over which is laid a driving backbeat and yet another great example of Cooper and Peel’s seemingly intuitive harmonising. The song is a perfect choice for a single release as it perfectly illustrates the band’s strengths, namely superb musicianship, great song-writing, fantastic arrangements and intelligent vocal harmonies.

I really enjoyed this album, with 'Rackwick' and 'Old Man of Hoy' particularly standing out. The mix of traditional and contemporary works particularly well and each song benefits from Cooper’s clear understanding of multiple genres. If Betty Corrigall ever feels like coming back from the dead to inspire another album, I hope she comes to me!

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