Agent Starling Constellation of Birds

Artist: Agent Starling
Album: Constellation of Birds
Label: DHM

Agent Starling is a new(ish) project for accomplished musicians Lou Duffy-Howard and Quentin Budworth, supported on violin and cello by Lou’s son, Dexter. Bassist and “occasional acoustic guitarist” Lou had indie chart success with Red Guitars (hugely successful back in the day, with their single “Good `Technology” being championed by the late great John Peel, appearances on The Tube, OGWT and others), and fronts Hull based Loudhailer Electric Company with partner Rich. Quentin is an award winning, Bridlington based film maker, photographer, and digital artist, who specialises on hurdy-gurdy, performing as a soloist and lead musician with world music band Celtarabia, historical musicians the Grinnigogs and the deeply traditional Hessle Ceilidh Band. I could add much, much more.

Lou and Quentin have known each other for some years. Agent Starling was borne out of a love of music experimentation and paying a kind of futuristic homage to folk traditions. Loudhailer released a work in 2017 called The Auricula Suite, which tells “a re-imagined story of a historical journey to a new land, inspired by folk tales of the alpine flower – the Primula Auricula – and its 16th century journey to England with the Huguenot refugees”. Quentin played hurdy-gurdy on that album.

The Agent Starling project has allowed the two to experiment with new sounds and to fuse elements of music from around the world specifically from Quentin’s recent travels: “just prior to lockdown travelling widely throughout Europe to study style, technique and repertory with leading players from many different folk traditions”. The result is compelling, demanding, progressive, and fuses a range of cross-cultural folk-based sounds and moods. The album challenges and stretches boundaries, and occasionally – in a good way – feels slightly unhinged, but I absolutely love it when musicians dare to tread forth where many would turn on their heels and run.

“Constellation of Birds” is their second product from the last two pandemic years. Unable to gig, the duo decided to record a song together remotely, and that quickly metamorphosed into two albums worth of music, with the first “European Howl” being released in July 2021. Lou expands: “Typically for each song we started with a conversation about the framework of the song – the general feel, tempo, key, time signature. Then Quentin would record a hurdy-gurdy part in his home studio and send it to me. I would use it as inspiration to shape up the song in my home studio, adding rhythm tracks, playing bass.” And so, to their new album…

On first hearing the opening song “Valley to Mountainside” I felt it created a pan-European hybrid, fusing Pentangle-esque sounds with those from Eastern reaches of Europe, similar to Ukrainian quartet DakhaBrakha – and how sadly topical is that? I still feel the same after several listens. Lyrically very simple and evoking birds in flight, the song celebrates the beauty of nature.

We’ve all had a taste of the meaning of “Leave No Trace”, that feeling of being an alien stranded on Earth during the pandemic. With its wonderful hurdy-gurdy drone and driving percussion, the song again continues a European mood, which carries into “Scandiland (Hälleforsnäsar)” with its a beautifully bleak instrumental mood. It’s reminiscent of a cold, rock-strewn Icelandic landscape, yet a place we still inhabit in some peripheral way.

“Pagaratz” finds me politically very much on the same page, and is an observation of the band’s dissent with the British government. It’s a progressive rock infused folk rap that nails its colours firmly to the mast:

“There’s a sage in the gallery takin’ in the view
And the Doc’s in the science lab cookin’ up a brew
And the rats in the cabinet are jumpin’ at each other
Gonna pick ’em up and pack ’em off and bring in another”

The lyrics for “Midsommer” are delivered Patti Smith fashion, and showcases Lou’s intuitive bass playing. It’s a joyful celebration of the summer solstice. At times punk folk with a percussive reggae rhythm, this is a real earworm of a tune, with the hurdy-gurdy and violin drifting in and out of the song like a gypsy dance around a stone circle. “Princess Julia” presents in mantra form a fairy tale of a royal pretender and her secret, with its folk tale seeming to take a more general aim at dishonesty, of which there is much in the highest levels of our society.

“Shadowland” opens with a dub reggae rhythm that sits beneath the song, which according to the album notes “depicts a mysterious chance meeting by the dark sea”. There’s a ’60s sound to the vocal, with a whispered section seeming to carry messages on the sea breeze:

“So raise a glass as the night comes in
And steal a kiss in the shadowland”

“Bridget Cruise” provides an oriental instrumental interlude, with another earworm created this time by a repeating melody weaving together violin, cello, and guitar – a delightful tune has the atmosphere of a Japanese ritual.

The sound of a hammer hitting an anvil introduces the album’s final song, the poetic “The Stonemason’s Dream”. The song is “a call for cathedral-thinking in the modern world to preserve it”, which very much speaks to the heart of a man who has been banging on for decades about the dangers of short term thinking in politics, business, and life in general and specifically in connection with our treatment of the planet we live on.

Thought-provoking and courageous are two words that seem so lacking in today’s dysfunctional world, and in providing this innovative album of truly original music, Agent Starling remind us we are so much better than this. Well worth spending proper money on.

John Reed

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