It’s appropriate that the casual stride down from the city centre to Stockbridge Parish Church on this late summer evening, trees casting long, still shadows in the warm evening light, feels like a slow descent into another world. SOUNDING, the ambitious double-bill concert conceived by Modern Studies and Lomond Campbell especially for the Made in Scotland showcase at this year’s festival, is nothing short of transportative. Performing with the Pumpkinseed Chamber Orchestra, even a church seems too humble a venue for the extravagant, entrancing sounds that the two acts conjure this evening. It’s an event at once grand and candid, the cross-pollination between personnel (Studies’ drummer Joe Smillie lends his sticks to a couple of Campbell tracks, while the distinction between Modern Studies’ and the Pumpkinseed Orchestra’s line-ups is fuzzy at best) lending the performance a familial air that belies its scope and professionalism.
The first half is dedicated to Black River Promise, the ruminative, melancholic album Lomond Campbell released last year. Tonight’s performance marks first time the material has been performed publicly as it was recorded, featuring live strings arranged by Modern Studies bassist Pete Harvey. Despite the number of musicians present, the sound in the nave is subtle and uncluttered, Campbell’s bright tenor vocals and cyclical guitar picking drifting atop the strings with a delicate clarity.
Campbell refers occasionally to what looks like sheet music, which he later reveals to be just a piece of paper with a single performance direction from Harvey – the words “hold for longer” in fat black marker. Indeed, everything about Campbell and the orchestra’s set exudes a graceful patience, with much of the string work occurring between the band leader’s notes. There are some more boisterous moments, like on brooding instrumental Acharacle, but the majority is gracefully subdued, the lower end of the strings sounding like the gentle breathing of a sleeping giant.
Campbell proves he could give plenty of the more traditional Fringe acts a run for their money too. “I just want to say, it’s not what it looks like,” he assures us, having noticed that the image of a black-clad “skinny troosered, skinhead” standing in front of a golden eagle statue (that’d be the lectern) is probably a little disconcerting. “I don’t know who decided to light it in blood red though!” he laughs.
Though Modern Studies also have a recent album replete with strings in their repertoire, the band treat us to a packed hour of entirely new material, pausing only momentarily between numbers for a tune up and a brief “cheers folks” from lead guitar player Rob St. John.
It’s during their set that the visual component of SOUNDING really comes to the fore. Projected above the stage, we see animated educational videos about the solar system, atomic physics and procreation, fitting imagery for the complex, sweeping music that seems to be assembling itself before our eyes and ears. Some technical difficulties in the opening cut mean we’re subjected to some startling rouge blasts of trombone but they’re hardly out of place in the context of the whole set, which is dynamic, thrilling and totally unpredictable throughout. These new songs retain the pastoralism of Swell to Great but in a much beefier fashion, hewing closer to prog-rock than they do something resembling folk music. Parts recall big studio pop productions from the 70s while others bring to mind contemporary artists like Julia Holter and Joanna Newsom.
Their last track is also the highlight of the evening, a majestic cacophony of brass, strings and xylophone that will mostly likely be the centerpiece on their upcoming new record. If sounds half as good as it did tonight, it’ll be something special indeed.