The cataclysmic event of Brexit and the ensuing political and cultural fallout has influenced many different musicians across the stylistic spectrum, prompting a range of reactions as artists responded in different ways to the implications of the referendum result. These shockwaves have combined with ever-increasing inequality, which has only been worsened by the pandemic, to create a febrile national atmosphere, that can feel like a culture war with battles raging on many fronts.
The reaction from some artists has been anger, such as IDLES with their coruscating take on punk rock, or slowthai, with his pointedly titled album, Nothing Great About Britain. Others reflected on what we’d lost, such as The Good, The Bad and The Queen on their album, Merrie Land, a melancholy tour round the British Isles. But Deep England by Gazelle Twin is by far the most startling, haunting and downright spooky re-imagining of the state of the nation I’ve heard so far, and definitely one of the most original albums you’re likely to encounter this year.
And although Deep England is more than just a rumination on the confused state of Britain today, it’s also not Gazelle Twin’s first album to fall under the shadow of Brexit. 2018’s Pastoral was a jagged and angry affair and in fact, Deep England contains a few of the same tracks in expanded form, embellished with vocal textures and tones from NYX – a ‘collaborative drone choir’. But rather than a simple expression of anger or grief, on Deep England Elizabeth Bernholz manages to distil the charged and fractious mood of today, and synthesise this with elements originating much deeper in England’s murky medieval history. In doing so she conjures up a macabre and sinister vision of England, a haunted land that runs on ritual and ceremony, where the population lives in fear of the predatory forces of feral gangs, witches and demons.
Gazelle Twin is primarily a vocal artist, who twists and contorts her voice into myriad forms in the service of her arresting and unsettling compositions. Whereas Pastoral was knitted together from a framework of jittery electronics – sounds cut of the same cloth as house, techno and grime – Deep England is largely shorn of these elements. The tracks are predominantly acapella, with layers of cut-up voices and syllables taking the place of drum machines and synths. The few instruments that do appear echo a bygone age – woodwind pipes, recorders, flutes and church bells – and these are set adrift on a sea of monolithic drones and bottomless bass strings. The resulting combination is something imbued with all the weight and majesty of a holy religious ceremony, or the performance of a dark satanic ritual.
Easy listening, this ain’t. But if you’re willing to suspend disbelief, you’ll find yourself pulled into a compelling and terrifying Wonderland, a cautionary tale of a society eerily reflective of our own.
The album opens with that most quintessentially English of sounds – the pealing of church bells – which then fades into a long and sustained drone. This sets the stage for Bernholz’s voice which, when she sings unadorned by any instrumentation or vocal effects, is deeply powerful. The piece ends with a question, “who are you?”, which over the course of the album seems to take on an existential significance.
‘Better in my Day’ takes that old adage, “things were much better in my day”, which has been echoed by generations through the ages ever since elderly cave-people looked on disapprovingly at the youngsters’ obscene wall daubings. Here the phrase serves as a placeholder for one of key forces behind the Brexit vote, collective nostalgia for a misremembered golden age. Bernholz’s voice is fragmented and layered, transforming her into an acapella street gang of angry, taunting voices that repeat the mantra over and over. The chattering chorus creates a dense and frenzied atmosphere evoking the incessant war of words waged night and day on social media. By means of some truly terrifying vocal effects, on ‘Throne’ she becomes a malevolent beady-eyed monster, a gruesome personification of household debt that sits on a throne made of the bones of anyone unlucky enough to fall into its trap.
Rather than any explicitly ‘Brexit influenced’ albums, the release Deep England reminds me the most of is PJ Harvey’s Let England Shake. Although ostensibly inspired by the horror and folly of the Great War, it was essentially about all war and remains as painfully relevant today as on its release 10 years ago. But Harvey’s stroke of genius on that album was to dig deeper than the last 100 years of history; the folky cadence to much of Let England Shake was evocative of a much older England, one with its roots in the middle ages. Gazelle Twin also plays with these forces that sit deep within the national psyche – the stuff of our myths and fairy tales – and uses them to show the absurdity of our current situation. Blaming our problems on those we perceive as outsiders, trusting leaders who wave their hands and repeat the same incantations over and over, hoping by doing so it’ll make them come true.
The climax of the album comes with the title track, Deep England, which is the most powerful of Bernholz’s feats of alchemy. The drawn-out choral drones of the NYX choir create the hushed reverential atmosphere of a religious ceremony, into which Bernholz juxtaposes symbols of the mundane grey England we’re all familiar with, ‘my silver car, my retail park, my cul de sac’. These words are sung as though she’s performing a sacramental ritual and seem to take on totemic significance, and you wonder when all’s said and done, is this all we are? Is England just a dead-end place, a cul de sac? This irony is made all the more sweet (or bitter, depending how you look at it), given that the preceding track is a stripped-down version of Blake’s Jerusalem. Although it’s been co-opted as an unofficial national anthem and sung with patriotic fervour, the original poem was very likely a scathing attack on excessive nationalism and institutional religion.
At times shocking and at others darkly comic, Deep England is a complex and gripping album. And for Gazelle Twin, it represents a significant step up from Pastoral, which was intriguing but patchy. For an artist whose voice is so integral to her music, it seems she has definitely found hers.