Record: As It Is (2020)
In the late 1960s and early 70s, fear of annihilation, technological progress, and a vision of alternative societies filtered through popular and underground culture, conspiring to promote the ideal of ‘getting back to the garden.’ ‘Folk’ is only one of many ingredients in the mix during these charged moments. Neither Nick Drake nor Kate Bush nor Talk Talk sang old folk songs, but their music resonates with Romantic yearning for an intense communion with nature and the desire to reclaim a stolen innocence.from Electric Eden: Unearthing Britain’s Visionary Music, by Rob Young (Faber and Faber, Inc., 2010)
After finding a record called “King Giraffe” (Yukon Records, 2007), by the Portland-based band The Parson Red Heads, I set off on a journey. I had started my own vinyl-only record label, Untide Records, and badly wanted to reissue “King Giraffe” on vinyl (alas, it never happened). In my search, however, after not being able to reach the Red Heads directly, I somehow made contact with Sam Fowles, then a full-time member and contributing songwriter for the Red Heads, but who, at the time, was also contemplating stepping away from his collective of college friend’s turned band, and begin a solo recording career. That chance contact led us both into a deep and sustained conversation, primarily through letters and postcards and the sharing of books, a conversation that continues to expand to this day.
Almost immediately, we discovered a mutual admiration for “source” musicians arising from the English roots music scene of the late 1960s and 1970s, some of whom today are being “rediscovered” and released again on vinyl, and who are flowing seamlessly into current music trends, artists such as the visionary, monk-like Bill Fay, Vashti Bunyan, Fairport Convention (especially Richard Thompson’s stunning solo recordings, old and new), The Byrds, Donovan, Bert Jansch, and especially Nick Drake. (Early band photos of The Parson Red Heads might just as easily have been those of Fairport Convention, so easily did their Eugene, Oregon, aesthetic seem to blend into the lineage from which much of their songwriting style arose.) Sam and his band seemed to be a kind of regeneration of yet another cycle of revival and revolutionary songwriting exploring alternative culture, searching for a deeper communion through music.
When Fowles did break away, his first new identity, House of Angels, released a few singles, culminating in a stylish vinyl release, “Era Ephemera” (Parson Farm Records, 2016), with album cover art taking a page out of the early playbook by the likes of the 1960s Canadian jazz-rock band, Lighthouse (have a look at “One Fine Morning,” or “Thoughts of Movin’ On,” both from 1971 on Evolution Records). Essentially a solo project, Fowles developed the album’s 10 songs with several close friends and contributors, while steering his final sound toward an overall lean, acoustic-laden contemporary alt-folk vibe. While feeling more like a self-portrait than a collaborative group effort, “Era Ephemera” succeeds in its departure from the Red Heads’s more blended alt-country persona (led then as it is now, by Evan Way’s distinctive vocals and lead guitar).
Through 2019, our now recent distant past, before the arrival of the coronavirus invasion that’s all but shut down nearly every industry including music, Fowles formed a proper band, Festival, with William “Billy” Johnson (nearly all lead guitar, bass, keys, and the album mixing duties) and David Swensen (drums, overdubs, and album mastering), to expressly explore and collaborate at every level on their new project. Festival from inception would approach songwriting as a negotiated, collaborative sound (Fowles retains the majority share of songwriting credit, but not all). The results of this new entity, the six-track EP, “As It Is” (self released, 2020), are immediately distinctive and successful, extending its reach far beyond what was achieved in House of Angels, with an elevated level of energy, complex emotional layers, and charged delivery. This record sets in motion a whole new direction for Sam Fowles as a recording artist.
Assembled, in a sense, like a jazz album or soundtrack, “As It Is” opens with an instrumental electronic and guitar-laden track, “Being Light,” connecting and establishing a sonic metaphor with the EP artwork inspired by the 19th Century French printmaker, Gustave Doré. Two more tracks follow, “Arise, Blazing Sun,” and “Akin Beyond,” expanding the band’s direction of resetting their layered songwriting perspective. Then, shattering the calm and punching through like an interlude from The Tempest, comes “Just a Quick 48,” another instrumental, guitar-driven retro counterpoint. “As It Is” then glides in with its final two tracks, “Save Yourself,” and “Shape,” rich explorations of how this new band plans to speak.
Fowles’s distinctive vocals and songwriting (and now by extension, Festival’s, with Johnson sharing some writing duties) chronicles a kind of celebratory spiritual quest set against a backdrop of unknowable celestial symbols and their shadowy, unpredictable movements. To say this band’s songs are purely personal misses the larger spiritual struggle in their narratives, Fowles’s need to align himself between the certainty of an idealized faith, and the all-too-human rebuke of ever-present doubt, that out there somewhere, there might not be a dead-certain happy outcome for us all. Fowles’s best songs illuminate this in-between place of light surrounded by an indifferent gathering darkness.
For Festival, between the known and the unknown spaces that this band appears to be set to explore, there are moments of light and clarity and power. There’s also a casual freedom in this new collaboration, not present in House of Angels, to push their sound collectively toward an outcome far greater than the band’s individual solo strengths.
Song lyrics today that lean toward a slightly idealized world, as they did in the 1960s and 1970s, might seem a hard sell now. In previous eras it took intractable wars, political crises, and assassinations of beloved leaders to drive artists, bands, and songwriters to search backward to the likes of William Morris (and his pastoral socialist vision, his raging against the Industrial Revolution machinery) and John Clare (with his life-long poetic lament for the death of England’s ancient agrarian culture). In the middle of our current, many-layered crisis landscape, some bands are once again exploring the tentative quality of modern life that we too-easily imagine to be solid and secure.
We’ve hit the pause button in the music world for the present moment, but this band has a lot of open sky to explore once we’re free to move about the planet again. And we will be free again. Here’s to such a return, as there must always be, for all of us, and for the return of what Joe Boyd once called “glorious optimism.”
Our confidence grew out of a feeling that large sections of the population — and the media — were with us and from what we saw as the inexorable power of our music and our conversations. In our glorious optimism, we believed that ‘when the mode of music changes, the walls of the city shake.’from White Bicycles: Making Music in the 1960s, by Joe Boyd (Serpent’s Tail, 2006)