Orkney is something of a wild and magical place. Nestled to the north of Scotland and exposed to everything the North Atlantic can throw at it, it is a clutch of islands filled with wonder, history and no trees (as in the even more exposed Iceland, the winds that buffet Orkney keep anything above the height of a hedge from surviving).
They are also the birthplace of the eccentric and eclectic musical talent that is Erland Cooper. Cooper is the frontman of the partially self-titled Erland & the Carnival and now, thanks to a dream about a suicidal 18th Century twentysomething, one third of The Magnetic North.
That twentysomething was Betty Corrigall, who threw herself into the Atlantic after her village cast her out for being unmarried and pregnant in the 1770s. And not only did she inspire him, she apparently brought him a list of track names and even some snippets of the tracks that would form the album.
Given such specific instructions, no wonder he grabbed a couple of compatriots – fellow Carnival member Simon Tong and singer and LIPA graduate Hannah Peel – and headed far, far north of their London base to Cooper’s parents’ house on the harbour of Stormness to make Orkney: Symphony of the Magnetic North.
The results are as stark and beautiful as the islands they were formed on. From an overture named after the Bay of Skaill – home of Europe’s oldest village, Skara Brae, in case you wondered – to an introspective and ominous multi-faceted finale with the moniker of one of the highest cliffs in Britain, Yesnaby, it is an album that meanders and floats across the archipelago’s landscape and legends, delivering layer on layer of dark splendour that shivers and shines.
The bleak beauty and stark grandeur fill every track, with highlights coming thick and fast. The aching High Life wraps around itself like a hug from the ghost of a loved one, The Old Man of Hoy is dramatic, delicate and desperate in equal parts and Ward Hill weighs the soul and warms the heart with a mix of deep bass and epic vocals (provided by the Stromabank Pub Choir, a troupe made up of half of Hoy’s population).
It is a remarkable piece of work. Indeed, the greatest compliment that can be paid is that the album is as unique, as amazing and as striking as the islands that inspired it. And if you don’t believe that, take a trip north yourself.