Album Review: Joshua Burnside – Ephrata

By on Thursday, 4th May 2017 at 12:00 pm
 

Joshua Burnside Ephrata album coverAs far as singer/songwriters go in the North of Ireland, Joshua Burnside is one whose songs are unlike anything you have ever heard. Blending elements of Irish folk music with South American rhythms and his recent fascination with gothic folk and Americana, Burnside has created his own unique strand of alternative folk, accumulating fans from both sides of the Atlantic.

Burnside is set to release his debut album this Friday. Since the release of the album’s second single ‘Blood Drive’ on the 30th of March, the anticipation building for ‘Ephrata’ is higher than ever. Named after a small town in Pennsylvania that Burnside visited whilst on tour a few years ago, the LP is a musical diary of his thoughts, emotions, dreams, experiences and philosophies. The album seems to serve a pivotal point in Burnside’s career, transitioning him from indie folk to a strand of alt-folk that incorporates world music, found sounds, synths and subtle experimentations with techno.

In the two opening tracks, albums singles ‘Blood Drive’ and ‘Tunnels Pt. 2’, Burnside showcases the fluidity in his songwriting, proving that no style or sound is out of bounds for him. ‘Blood Drive’, despite its menacing title, presents a Sufjan Stevens-style of delicacy. The intricate finger-picked guitar enchantingly rolls over the chord progression, filling out the sound to start the song strong. Moving from strength to strength, Burnside executes a sophisticated and captivating vocal melody in the chorus. Despite the track’s apocalyptic lyrics, they wrap the listener in a blanket of comfort even upon first listen.

‘Tunnels Pt. 2’ presents a darker, slightly rougher side to Burnside’s writing. The lyrics convey the idea of technology taking over man’s natural state: “now I don’t know where the wires end and my veins begin / God help me I’ve seen everything” concludes the third verse, reflecting the duality of being both man and machine. With that in mind, the music drives the message with a sharp, jagged, rhythmic epicentre held down by Joshua’s brother Connor on drums, particularly in the first half of the track. Rigorous guitar stabs accompany the strict timing of the track, whilst harsh feedback and pulsating horns help to fill out the track with unfamiliar sounds. The second half of ‘Tunnels Pt. 2’ is much more musically sparse matching the emotional turbulence of the song. Crashing drums, loose, visceral guitar chords and the repetition of lyrics, which include “I’m sinking down / just let me go”, represent a defeated man overcome by his biggest fear, technology.

The charm of ‘Ephrata’ comes from the blend of unlikely musical styles, particularly from South American Cumbian music. Its Eastern European influences create an intelligent blend of ethno musical folk. ‘26th Street,’ about the assassination of political satirist Jamie Garzon, marks the midway point of the album. The track features a heavy waltz-like piano rhythm, accompanied by off-kilter accents that instantly bring a sense of urgency to the track, as Burnside’s lyrics act like the news report from the day Garzon was shot. The beauty, however, lies in the seamless transition between the verse and the subsequent sections, which effortlessly erases the sense of unease and replaces it with a feeling of relief, particularly during the light-hearted vocal hook backed by the violin. We hear more influences of world music further down the album. Another waltzy track, ‘Unrequited Love’, sees heavy use of an accordion to highlight the harmony, the role Burnside’s violinist Rachael Boyd would usually fill in his tracks.

Throughout the album, Burnside’s varied subject matter includes relationships, technophobia and politics, all taken from his own personal experiences. One very important detail within ‘Ephrata’ lays in the album’s apocalyptic undercurrent and its continuous reference to PTSD, touched upon briefly in ‘Blood Drive’. The album’s title track ‘Ephrata’ speaks directly of said darker themes, and Burnside explains further: “How something as routine as getting your blood taken can set off a fight or flight-style anxiety attack, all of a sudden it’s as if the world is ending.” “Ephrata, Ephrata / I thought the world was ending / when the market burnt down” explains the story behind the song and consequently the title of the album in just one lyric. Burnside strategically masks this troubling lyrical theme with the use of upbeat Colombian rhythms, layers of additional percussion, soft harmonies and heavy use of a nylon-stringed guitar. The genius to ‘Ephrata’ is that whether you’re focused on the words or the music, it’s like listening to two very different songs.

It was a challenge to choose the right tracks to represent ‘Ephrata’, so don’t think of those featured to be necessarily highlights. I’ve merely scratched the surface of this album by telling you about the singles. However, to truly absorb Burnside’s music ‘Ephrata’ is an album that deserves your full attention. It’s not very often one experiences such a delightful blend of unconventional compositional techniques, including using found sounds and world music together. That, mixed with brooding and sometimes chilling lyrical themes and a beguiling sense of musicality, is what makes ‘Ephrata’ so undeniably intoxicating and alluring.

9.5/10

‘Ephrata’ is due out tomorrow, the 5th of May, via Belfast’s own Quiet Arch Records. If you wish to catch Joshua Burnside live check out the short list of UK and Irish dates here. Read Adam’s review of his live appearance at Output Belfast back in February follow this link.

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