“Conflict Tourism” – Gilmore and Roberts

4 stars (out of 5)

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Conflict Tourism TitleKatriona Gilmore and Jamie Roberts’ fourth album, “Conflict Tourism” is rooted in the conflicts or opposing forces that are in action all around us. The theme is most overt in the album’s central fulcrum, “Balance/Imbalance”, where the first verse (over a minimalist backing) lists a series of familiar dichotomies or polar relationships which suggest balance before tipping over into a second verse suggesting that dark (or is it absence of light) is becoming dominant. It’s one of many fascinating lyrical themes on the album and deliberately positioned at a pivotal point in the centre of the track listing. But let’s just start at the beginning.

The opening track “Cecilia” starts with chopped mandolin chords before mutating into industrial folk driven along by Mark Tucker’s panel-beater percussion; the vocal stylings are fairly traditional, but the rhythm patterns are contemporary. Similarly, “Jack O Lantern” takes a mythical lyrical theme and blends it with traditional and contemporary instruments (Phillip Henry’s lap steel and Jamie Roberts’ drum programming) to create a slightly destabilising feel. The lap steel lends a country feel to the beautifully understated “She Doesn’t Like Silence”, which explores the relationship between the public face and the private one, followed by “Selfish Man”, where the conflict is between the two characters’ feelings about motorbike racing (and also the irony of a reason to live becoming a reason for dying).

“Stumble on the Seam” is an interesting combination of folk instruments in the verses (mainly) and rock stylings in the choruses. The narrative is an uplifting tale of a new seam in the Blue John mines in Castleton which was discovered in 2013 after a sixty-eight year search; it’s the classic folk tale of the seemingly impossible quest which is resolved just in time. Following “Balance/Imbalance”, the album moves back towards more traditional folk instrumentation with the uptempo, fiddle-led “Peggy Airey”, the story of a nineteenth Barnsley character, while the slower “Time Soldiers On” has a very simple message; nature moves on and so should we because time only moves in one direction. “Peter Pan” is the story of another Barnsley character, Richard Tolson, this time from the twenty-first century, where the tensions are between an enthusiasm for life and ‘a failing body shutting down before it ought’.

The album’s closing songs continue the personal, modern themes of “Peter Pan”. “Warmonger” is a duet with a melodic upright bass line, which you can read on a personal or political level, while the ethereal “Ghost of a Ring” compares a relationship with a cheap ring which leaves an unsightly verdigris stain which is transient as the memory of the relationship.

While “Conflict Tourism” isn’t quite a concept album, the idea of polarities suffuses the album, which is packed with lyrical and musical invention. Katriona and Jamie take traditional elements like acoustic guitar, mandolin and fiddle, augment them with more modern elements such as programmed beats and industrial percussion to create an ever-changing backdrop for lyrics ranging from simple narrative to evocative poetic imagery. The finished article’s a thought-provoking and satisfying piece of work.

Out on September 18 on GR! Records (GR006).