It’s impossible to talk about Bryde’s debut record Like An Island without considering Sarah Howell’s journey to this record’s particularly caliginous landscape. There have been various musical endeavours over the last fifteen years and they culminated in 2009 with a significant collaboration with fellow Welsh native Richard Llewellyn in the form of folk pop duo Paper Aeroplanes. Although blessed with infectiously catchy melodies, an air of melancholy infused much of the material and this emanated from Howell’s weightless vocals that would surprise in their ghostly passion. There were clues to a new direction with the release of several singles under the new moniker over the last eighteen months or so, but Like An Island’s arrival confirms how Sarah Howell has arrived at a particularly nebulous stage in her musical journey.
‘To Be Brave’ instantly ensures that there is no deception in the reinvention of this Welsh singer-songwriter. The tender, fluid strings of the past have been replaced by nightmarish clangs and scrapes which augment Howell’s plaintive melody and lamenting vocals. The song reaches an ugly car wreck of a climax when clattering percussion, angry guitars and swirling synths collide. It’s a real statement of intent which ‘Less’ backs up with driving bass lines and a dangerous timbre to the vocals that was never experienced during the Paper Aeroplanes era. Once again, the track ends in a cavalcade of anguished vocals and feedback redolent of the 90s and the grunge that defined the decade.
‘Flesh, Love and Blood’ might lack some of the distinct character of the previous tracks but ‘Peace’ is a battleground between solemn tenderness and brutal disharmony, and this ebb and flow makes for a thrilling experience. ‘Fast Awake’ once again uses disarming vocals to drag us into a deceptive narrative built amidst a boundless melody and an incessant rhythm that grips until the end. ‘Euphoria’ marks the records mid-point and it also possesses a shift in pace and tone as subtle piano initially accompanies softly delivered vocals, before a harder edge once again begins to emerge as the song progresses. This understanding of a song’s narrative structure is a key strength of Howell; we experience a sense of catharsis as tracks lurch unpredictably at times to their natural conclusion – the ending is always satisfying, if not necessarily completely uplifting.
‘Handstands’ is a stark, ragged affair and probably the first time we get a clear glimpse at the influence of Laura Marling on Bryde’s reinvention. ‘To Be Loved’ and ‘Desire’ are aptly titled insights into what has shifted. The passion is real, the anguish palpable and the music serves to enhance these primal instincts with unrelenting energy and intense textures. Although ‘Transparent’ and ‘Steady Heart’ slam on the musical brakes, there is a tenderness which is gratefully received after the severity that precedes it and they allow Sarah’s bewitching vocal range to take centre stage. It’s an entrancing conclusion to an immensely satisfying record that takes pleasure in its raw severity at times, but is ultimately an honest and beautiful record by an artist who seems to have found a true and distinctive voice.
LIKE AN ISLAND IS RELEASED THIS FRIDAY (13/4) VIA SEAHORSE MUSIC. PRE-ORDER HERE: