Ben Howard's debut Every Kingdom is an absolute smash, especially considering the English folkie was nowhere on the radar 'round this time last year. A spin through it reveals the album's immediate appeal, delivering in spades on acoustic pleasantries, obvious emotional weight, and rousing sing-along theatrics; the kind of collection unintentionally capitalizing on the current, Mumford-ization of the pop charts. Cha-ching!
Every Kingdom did bring with it a few darker sounding tidbits, however. There's the dissonant twirl of guitar strings on "Diamonds," the fall in line cadence of "The Wolves," and most obviously, "Black Flies;" a much darker beast hiding amongst the flock. Tucked away towards the end of the album, its moody, slow burning sprawl and deprecating lyrics ("No man is an island, this I know/But can't you see/Maybe you were the ocean when I was just a stone") feels a bit jarring. Taken out of context, however, the song's dark and ominous atmosphere marks the perfect predecessor to Ben's newest release, The Burgh Island EP; a similar collection of greyscale electric wonders that might single a definite shift in Howard's adventurous songwriting.
Almost immediately, the EP encourages vivid imagery in the mind's eye. Leading with a thrilling churn of fleshy finger picking, "Esmerelda" is intense in character, feeling a bit like succumbing to some crude oil black whirlpool of seawater, hopelessly funneling down to a gasping, airless demise. A dead thump of monstrous percussion pounds the surface of the song. No wonder Howard sings, "Poor me. She fell beneath the wheels to help me up/Black Sea. The monster killed the melody you loved." This isn't sentiment that arrives peacefully, lapping against the shore of the song. It's a storm surge that damn near tears it apart.
The remaining three tracks of the EP fall right in line with the opener. "Oats in the Water," a song Ben's been leading sets with for the last few months (see ours), takes a mighty grip on the bass lines, which is good considering the uneasy tread of Ben's vocals. Not to spoil the surprise, but the song is an eventual powder keg, building and overflowing in a clash of distorted guitar, ferocious cymbal work, and the bone-snapping strike of the snare. "To Be Alone" is perfectly titled...Ben spends most of the song declaring: "I don't need nobody" - a completely believable affirmation as the whole song sounds like it's taking place at the edge of the earth.
The Burgh Island EP concludes with a sprawling, 8-minute title track, that while more peaceful than the bunch that preceded, is no less affecting, especially in its isolation. When guest vocalist Monica Heldal's voice wafts in at the end, it comes from afar...the impossible day dream of a man who sits on the edge of darkness, daring to enter it and face whatever lies within. Should he enter, my guess is The Burgh Island EP will mark a dramatic shift in the possibilities for Howard's music down the road. Should he truly enter, consider this listener stoked at what's to come.
Check Out A Live Performance of "Oats In The Water"