Atmospheric, cinematic and ethereal are just some of the words that describe the music on Quickbeam’s debut album Quickbeam. So too does sparse, minimalist and flamboyant. Intriguing and compelling, the twelve soundscapes have been influenced by a myriad of eclectic influences. This includes ambient, Celtic, classical, folk, indie rock, jazz and soul. Comprising twelve soundscapes, quivering, classically influenced strings sit side-by-side with fuzzy guitars, braying horns and harmonium. Add to this fragile, tender vocals and soothing harmonies. Everything from Astrid Williamson, Bartok, Blue Nile, Boards of Canada, Brian Eno, Clannad, Cocteau Twins, Deacon Blue, Jerry Burns and Jesus and Mary Chain. have influenced Quickbeam. When all these musical influences are combined, the result is one of the most intriguing and eclectic albums of 2013.
Quickbeam, who were formed back in 2010 by Monika Gromek and Andrew Thomson. Monika the vocalist, played guitar and harmonium, while Andrew played guitar, percussion and piano. Later, they were joined by pianist Liam Chapman and Ruth Campbell on cello. Now a quartet, Quickbeam released their debut single Seven Hundred Birds in April 2012.
Produced by Chris Gordon, Seven Hundred Birds was released on Scottish label Comets and Cartwheels. Critically acclaimed, upon its release, critics were wowed by this collage of musical genres and influences. Multilayered, ethereal and melancholy, Seven Hundred Birds was a tantalizing taster of what Quickbeam were capable of. This however, was just the first chapter in Quickbeam’s musical journey. During the next chapter, Quickbeam would meet the man who’d be ying to their yang.
For the recording of Quickbeam, Quickbeam hooked up with Stewart Murdoch, lead singer and songwriter for Belle and Sebastian. He was now establishing a reputation as a producer. Stuart and Quickbeam would co-produce the eleven new tracks, which along with Seven Hundred Birds, became Quickbeam.
Joining Quickbeam for the recording of their debut album, were two guest artists. Cameron Maxwell played double bass, electric bass and trombone, while Magdelena Cryan played cello. Other artists played on just a few tracks. Cat Calton played on Immersed and 1743. Sheena Graham played the Vienna horn on Fall, Matter and One To Hold. Gradually, the pieces of Quickbeam fell into place, akin to a musical jigsaw. Together, classical strings sat side-by-side with fuzzy guitars, drenched in feedback. Then there was the unmistakable sound of the harmonium, plus of course, the questioning, probing, rasping horns. Once Quickbeam was recorded at Beetroot Studios, Airdrie, it was released in 2013.
Unlike most albums, which are either funded by a record company or the artist, Quickbeam received funding from Creative Scotland, an arts body which receives Lottery funding. This helped Quickbeam to release Quickbeam in June 2013. Just like the release of their debut single, Seven Hundred Birds, plaudits, praise and critical acclaim came the way of Quickbeam. Some critics thought Quickbeam was one of the best Scottish albums of 2013. Was that the case?
Opening Quickbeam is Remember, where melancholy, wistful strings are joined by crystalline guitars and broody drums. They’re joined by Monika’s tender, heartfelt vocal. Soothing harmonies, harmonium and strings tug at your heartstrings. So does Monika’s vocal, especially when she sings: “let go, return, to what you know.” Emotion and hurt sadness fill her voice, as selflessly, she sacrifices, the man she loves.
Seven Hundred Birds was recorded long before the rest of Quickbeam. It was produced by Chris Gordon, rather than Stewart Murdoch. Classic strings and the harmonium provide a slow, emotive backdrop. Having set the scene for Monika, she delivers a vocal that’s pensive, full of memories. Her vocal is ethereal reminiscent of Liz Fraser, as she paints pictures. Memories coming flooding back, of a time and place, when she was happy and hopeful.
Immersed has been influenced by folk, ambient and classical music. Deliberate stabs of piano and melancholy strings combine with Monika’s fragile, Prozac-fuelled vocal. Sounding bereft of emotion, it’s as if she’s been hurt once too often. Her delivery is matter of fact, while the arrangement grows in drama. Driven along by a strident bass, thunderous drums, fuzzy guitars and sweeping strings provide a dramatic backdrop to Monika’s hurt-filled vocal, which reminds me of Astrid Williamson.
Mountains opens with just a thoughtful piano meandering across the arrangement. This lends an air of mystery to this minimalist track. Reminiscent of Brian Eno circa Music For Airports. Other influences include Harold Budd and ex-Cocteau Twin, Robin Guthrie. Fuzzy guitars resonate, adding not just a contrast, but a warmth to the clinical, mysterious and almost disturbing track.
Fall is an enigmatic, ethereal and dramatic track. Just a deliberate piano is joined by a haunting vocal that’s been influenced by Liz Fraser and Jerry Burns. Soothing, tender harmonies and wistful harmonies provide the backdrop for the vocal, poses the questions. Why, dejectedly, the vocal asks, do: “you fall, in rooms so bright” why do: “you fall, you fight?”Accompanied by braying horns the drama grows. Thunderous drums and crashing cymbals play their part in this heartbreaking lament for a tormented soul.
Crystalline guitars, pensive strings and harmonium provide an emotive backdrop while drums add to the drama as the journey Home begins. Monika delivers her best vocal so far. Best described as ethereal, impassioned and hauntingly beautiful, there’s a sense of longing in her vocal. Cinematic in nature, the arrangement conjures up pictures of a journey through the stormy sea Monika sings about. Pounding drums, fuzzy guitars drenched in feedback and swirling strings combine as Monika’s homecoming becomes reality. This fusion of ambient and indie rock where Clannad, meets Liz Fraser with the Jesus and Mary Chain in tow is one of the highlights of Quickbeam.
Understated describes Matter. Just a thoughtful combination of piano and wistful strings accompany Monika. Full of emotion and sadness, it’s as if Monika’s almost given up, as she sings: “I searched for so long”…”I travelled so far.” Searching, looking, but never finding, she’s given up hope. So, when the band unleash a dramatic burst of music, it’s as if her emotion has come to a head. After a brief explosion of energy, it’s as she’s spent, exhausted and decides to give up her search for what’s eluded her so long, happiness and love.
1743 has a dreamy, languid and sometimes, melancholy sound. Just a combination of Vienna horn, piano and strings join crystalline guitars as the arrangement grows in power and drama. Soon, the arrangement returns to its earlier beauty, as it reaches a poignant crescendo.
With its whispered vocal, meandering, mellow guitars and pedestrian drums uniting, Quickbeam head for The Great Expanse. Cooing harmonies accompany the breathy, tender vocal and doleful strings. You can hear every chord change. Deliberate and played with the utmost care, it’s a fitting accompaniment to the vocal which sings: “lover, when you crossed the sea for me, I cried.” These are some of the most beautiful lyrics on Quickbeam, which delivered with a tenderness and a sincerity.
Far Out At Sea is another track where there’s a Brian Eno influence. Again, there are similarities with Music For Airports. With just a piano accompanied by fuzzy strings, there’s an early seventies ambient sound. Where things change is how the strings join fuzzy guitars and harmonium to create a dramatic crescendo.
A carefully strummed guitar opens Grace, before Monika and Andrew sing a duet. Their vocals are tender, heartfelt and beautiful. They’re reminiscent of Rickie Ross and Lorraine McIntosh of Deacon Blue. Enveloped by the arrangement, which has a piano at its heart, the strings reflect the longing in the vocals. Guitars chime, drums provide bursts of drama and a contrast to the ethereal beauty and tenderness of the vocal.
Closing Quickbeam is One To Hold, where the harmonium provides a thoughtful, almost mournful backdrop. Drums pound ominously, while Monika’s voice is tender, filled with sadness and regret. The cause of this is what she’s lost, as she sings: “gone the days, and gone the hours, we breathed the same air.” Loss and longing are ever-present. Harmonies try to sooth and comfort her, while horns reflect the Monika’s hurt, in this lament for love lost.
Earlier I described Quickbeam’s debut album Quickbeam as atmospheric, cinematic and ethereal. I could just as easily have described Quickbeam as sparse, minimalist and flamboyant. Quickbeam is an enigmatic album. Twelve songs lasting fifty-one minutes, featuring instruments you wouldn’t normally find on a indie, pop or rock album. Cellos, harmonium and horns are added to the rhythm section, piano and organ. Mind you, Quickbeam isn’t an indie, pop or rock album. No. It’s a fusion of ambient, classical, Celtic, folk, indie rock, jazz, pop and soulful vocals. The artists that have influenced Quickbeam are just as varied. Listen carefully and you’ll hear Astrid Williamson, Bartok, Blue Nile, Boards of Canada, Brian Eno, Clannad, Cocteau Twins, Deacon Blue, Jerry Burns and Jesus and Mary Chain. Such a diverse and eclectic range of influences make for an album that’s intriguing and compelling.
Indeed, from the opening bars of Remember to the closing One To Hold, Quickbeam have you spellbound. Layer upon layer of multi-textured, genre-sprawling music toys with your emotions. Intrigued, as one track ends, you wonder where Quickbeam are taking you? It’s like a musical journey, where a series of cinematic soundscapes unfold. Monika is the narrator of stories full of hurt, heartbreak and mystery. Longing and loneliness are often present in songs that are designed to tug at your heartstrings. Veering between ethereal and beautiful, to dramatic and dark, Quickbeam’s debut album is not just one of the best Scottish albums of 2013, but one of the best British albums of 2013. One listen to Quickbeam, and you’ll realize this too. Standout Tracks: Remember, Immersed, 1743 and The Great Expanse.