VÄLVĒ’s second full album release, Tiny Pilots is a sonic exploration of imaginary worlds and literary influences, through experimental song forms
There are fleeting resemblances on the wonderful, many-sided Tiny Pilots by VÄLVĒ, ranging from the avant-prog of Henry Cow and Dagmar Krause, to Pere Ubu’s 30 Seconds Over Tokyo to the musique concrète of Harrison Birtwistle’s Chronometer. However, what composer Chlöe Herington particularly brings to VÄLVĒ is a literary sensibility, literary influences: H.E. Bates, W.B. Yates Keith Ridgway, the sci-fi of Clive Parker, Phillip Pullman, John Wyndham. Tiny Pilots is a speculative album, realising in music imaginary scenarios, unknown interiors as in ‘The Ice House’, based on a wondering what might be inside the huge, abandoned proto-refrigerators, or the intriguingly entangled ‘Atmos #4’, in which the Wiltshire based composer evokes a sense of the nocturnal life of a hedge, conjuring up visions with a found piece of slate and a kalimba.
In addition to Chlöe Herington’s lead vocals, soprano sax, electric guitar, electric piano, synths, glockenspiel, and drum machine and Emma Sullivan’s searing and sinuous electric bass, synth, trumpet and backing vocals, the album employs a crack team of special guest musicians: Elen Evans (harp), Craig Fortnam (drums, nylon string guitar, voice), Jo Spratley (vocals), Alex Thomas (drums), Brian Wright (violin, viola), Sam Barton (trumpet), Kavus Torabi (harmonium, voice) and Frank Byng (percussion, voice, mixing) – Tiny Pilots is a series of micro-worlds, or even, in the case of ‘B-612’, other worlds, distant planets. They are experimental modes of exploratory transportation, darting about inquisitively, never settling into a rut or groove, in which the electric and acoustic interplay freely, elaborately, evocative of the revived bygone and of unborn futures.
Herington’s vocals are lucid, almost deadpan, on ‘Delicate Engines’, for example, based on a terrifying childhood dream, a meditation on the vulnerability of the psyche. ‘Gertrude’s List’, meanwhile, with its mini-maelstroms of electric keyboard arpeggios, supportive trumpet phrases and cosmic blasts of synth imagines the prose of Gertrude Stein torn up and floating in space. But these are no mere flights of fantasy or whimsy. On ‘The Hot House’ a companion piece to ‘The Ice House (revisited)’, VÄLVĒ vividly evokes a suffocating sense of claustrophobia in a greenhouse using faintly Gamelan brushstrokes of prepared electric guitar, an Organelle synth alongside a Phillichorda organ, of impinging thickets of tropicalia, of sweating glass.
Perhaps more accessible in comparison to VÄLVĒ’s highly acclaimed previous releases, Tiny Pilots stands as a testament to the development of VÄLVĒ’s approach and sound as Chlöe Herington explains:
“In creating Tiny Pilots, I tried to push myself compositionally and for us to expand our sound as a band and try new things with the arrangements and orchestration. I spend an inordinate amount of time daydreaming, scribbling in notebooks and wandering along hedgerows, so always have plenty of material. However, it was reading Keith Ridgway’s Animals that really sparked the album - there is a passage about dreams and the telling of them ruining delicate engines that made my brain go all fizzy and I wrote ‘Delicate Engines’ straight after reading the book. Other lyrics reference recurring dreams I had as a child that I was too scared to tell my mum about in case they came true and she got kidnapped by Evil Edna. I also re-read The Little Prince which really started the idea of a tiny pilot inside us that goes off on adventures when we daydream.
‘Perfumes of Arabia’ is a cover by Maggie Holland who is an old friend of my mum’s and I have known all my life. She wrote the song in 1990 after listening to BBC Radio 4 reports of the Gulf War and her version is completely a cappella. Both the recording and her live performances of the song always very much affect me and I feel that the song remains relevant whatever the news is reporting. Our version adds an element of collective responsibility and nods to the noise levels of the way we receive from the media now.”
Moreover, Tiny Pilots is “prog” in a tacitly political sense. ‘Red Moon Rising’ looks back with its keyboard interactions to the pre-Thatcher era, the alternatives she shut down, invites us again to imagine the supposedly impossible. Finally, their version of Maggie Holland’s brilliant anti-war song ‘Perfumes Of Arabia’, written during the first Gulf War in 1991 brings us crashing to brutal earth - this arrangement is physically scalding, glows blood red, with Kavus Torabi’s smouldering harmonium reminding of an Ivor Cutler trembling with indignation, the sampled radio chatter signifying an overheated media environment. It’s a towering finale to a brilliant album that dares to propose other modes of being and thinking than the familiar ones to which humanity is fatally prone.
“Tiny Pilots perfectly treads between chaos and tranquility on a body of work that is soothing and startling. Intricately detailed and masterfully produced, these ten songs contain great imagination and artistic vision.” [The Quietus]
“Tiny Pilots serves as a wonderful continuation of VÄLVĒ and their ever-evolving musical journey. An album bursting with ambition and inspiration, the album delivers as a credit to all involved.” [UK Vibe]
Chlöe Herington - lead vocals, saxes, piano, programming
Emma Sullivan - bass guitar, microkorg, trumpet, vocals
Elen Evans - harp [A1, A5, B2]
Jo Spratley - lead vocals [B4]
Sam Barton - trumpet [B2]
Frank Byng - tambourine [A2]
Craig Fortnam - nylon string guitar and drums [A2, A4], electric guitar [B4]
Alex Thomas - drums [B4]
Kavus Torabi - harmonium [B5]
Brian Wright - violin and viola [B2]
Frank Byng [B2, B5], Matilda Lauberte Byng [B2], Jack Cheshire [B2, B5], Craig Fortnam [B2, B5], Emily Jones [B5], Kavus Torabi [B2, B5]
Mixed by Frank Byng at Snorkel Studios
Mastered by James Larcombe
VÄLVĒ - LIGHTS [SPARKLED]
VÄLVĒ - GERTRUDE'S LIST
VÄLVĒ - MAN IN THE MOON