Album & Single Reviews

Published on September 4th, 2014 | by Mike Ainscoe


VENA PORTAE – the album, the gig

We like our diversity at Sonic Bandwagon, so having plumbed the depths of Viking flatulence rock in a recent show, it’s a relief to expound on some Anglo-Swedish alt-folk with Vena Portae – a band comprised of BAFTA award-winning singer songwriter Emily Barker, songwriter and performer Dom Coyote, and Swedish producer and multi-instrumentalist Ruben Engzell. Perhaps better known for her solo work with her Red Clay Halo band, Emily Barker’s 2013 album Dear Rivergained some  critical acclaim, with four- and five-star reviews across the board (including a positive Mudkiss treatment for the album and live show)

The Vena Portae collaboration came about in the winter of 2012, working in a makeshift studio, full to the rafters with analogue equipment, spring reverbs, electric guitars, banjos, pianos and an array of weird and wonderful instruments. Over the space of a month they recorded a collection of songs, inspired by heartbreak, passion, and intrigue, which together make up their debut album.  Released in mid August, it presents an impressive collection – not too distant from Emily’s own solo work – reflecting the dark wintery conditions in which the songs came together. Ranging from the poppy and commercial to the sparser and deeply atmospheric pieces, the 11 song/35 minute collection has that low key slow burning feel which reveals more and more in its intricacy with repeated plays.

As Emily herself explained at the gig, “We all write songs and then put them together, together” meaning that all three come up with ideas and song structures which provide the basis for the band to develop the material. There are some songs which sing of simply ‘Emily Barker’ with less of Dom and Ruben, although Ruben takes a turn in contributing a main vocal on ‘Solitary Wives’  and ‘All Will Be Well’ with Dom sharing vocal on ‘Turning Key’ and ‘The Mapless Sea’. With tracks like ‘Foal’ and ‘Stingrays’ having a very lonesome country feel about them, especially where the harmonica kicks in, the overall impression is of a wisp of an understated and unpretentious album.

Not one to shirk responsibilities at Sonic Bandwagon, we ventured into the very densely populated and VERY humid back room at the Castle Hotel for the last date on the VP tour to see how the album translates to the live experience. The tour has been accompanied by a number of in store sessions in assorted record shops up and down the country – more’s the pity that nowhere in a major city like Manchester could accommodate – they may have been a bit bigger than the room in The Castle!

From the 2D of the album to the 3D of the stage, the music translates similarly and comes alive; the light and airy space of the feel of the album being replaced by a much more raw and fuller sound. Adding drummer Jesper Jonsson to the line up there’s still the subtlety of the record but the live situation brings out the real earthiness of the songs. Instruments were passed back and forth on the crowded little stage, Emily’s banjo and Dom’s electric guitar extending the soft banjo picking of ‘Transatlantic’ into a full band play out. With Emily featuring on harmonica on several of the songs it gave an impression of the sort of that tight but loose Neil Young garage band sort of sound. ‘The Mapless Sea’ took on new life transformed from a gentle rolling tune to a full on rock song and with a number of ‘new’ (which didn’t make the album) songs as well, there was a chance to see what else the band had come up with as part of the project. 

Catch up with Emily & The Red Clay Halo in Manchester again at the Whisky Sessions at the Victoria Warehouse on the 21st November.

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About the Author

Mike's mellowed in his old age, discovering the delights of traditional folk and acoustic music and the constant stream of new music coming through his passion as a gig-goer, music photographer and writer. With favourite artists and favourite songs which change daily, even hourly, he adds another spoke to the Sonic Bandwagon wheel of fortune.

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