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2020 Ambient #7: Modern Nature — Annual

2020A#7 was meant to be published at the end of February, but I just couldn’t get into writing with the intensity of the world right now; the Russian invasion of Ukraine, rising gas and energy bills, also unemployed again and my partner’s car breaking down has all been fuel for the anxiety fire. Anyway, hope you like this edition of 2020 Ambient — if you do, then please subscribe at the bottom of the page. Also give me a follow on Insta or Twitter!

After the digital release of Modern Nature’s mesmerising third album, Island of Noise in January, I’ve had it on non-stop rotation. Each release is quietly impressive; Modern Nature — the name inspired by Derek Jarman’s garden diaries of the same name —released their debut, How to Live in 2019. It incorporated Talk Talk-esque slowcore tendencies and hushed vocals with Radiohead’s jazzier moments on In Rainbows, while this album evokes Jason Molina, Sufjan Stevens, even Low, at times. I’ve been a devotee to Modern Nature since How to Live, but also frontman Jack Cooper’s previous project, the short-lived but prolific, indie-rock outfit Ultimate Painting. With each new work Modern Nature put out, I like to go through their whole discography, but I’m consistently drawn back to 2020’s Annual.

Despite how short this album is, clocking in at a mere 20 minutes (giving it more of a concept-EP feel), Annual was an incredibly soothing source of comfort in 2020. And while the new album makes use of free-jazz improvisers, such as saxophonist Evan Parker and pianist Alexander Hawkins, Annual is more tightly performed and compact. This is a blessing and a curse; the playing on the album is gorgeous, and richly textured, but you find yourself wishing for the album to be longer, for some of these songs and moments to be elongated and explored further. Instrumental opener ‘Dawn’ is a tangle of reverbing guitar, with strings sounding out a foghorn in the dark, before ‘Flourish’ kicks in; the abstract meandering forming a concrete shape, grounded by the percussion from Jim Wallis. Jeff Tobias’ saxophone playing is free to roam, often evoking the strength and fluidity of Pharoah Saunders’ playing. On ‘Mayday’, for example, Tobias’ saxophone is both background texture and conversing upfront with Cooper’s guitar and Wallis’ percussion. The haziness of the summer heat reflected on ‘Halo’ would be suffocatingly thick, without Tobias’ saxophone to cut through it. This conversation between each instrument, the intelligence and experience of the performers, and the mutability with which they play on Modern Nature records, is what keeps Annual (and the others) endlessly fresh and exciting.

The album is a reflection of the yearly cycle, first documented by Cooper in his diary through “words, observations from walks, description of events, thoughts, free associative streams of stuff” (according to their bandcamp), which became the basis for creating Annual. The tone of Cooper’s thoughts and observations changed with the seasons, closely linked to the feel of the environment around him, transitioning through the year. For me, the album also suggests a daily cycle; ‘Dawn’ being the first waking moments; groggy and not fully awake, ‘Flourish’ signifying settling into the morning; pulling back the curtains to let light flood the rooms of your home. ‘Harvest’ feels gorgeously autumnal and oddly Paganesque; Cooper’s vocals occupying the background of the track to allow Itasca (Kayla Cohen), whose own softly-sung vocals over warbling guitar sounds like an autumn afternoon, when the sun is going down and the sky is pumpkin-orange.

While Annual is both slow-burning and short, it perfectly captures the feeling of flicking through a book of family photographs; of seeing a family grow up, babies in the arms of a parent on a British beach, those babies’ first Christmas, then becoming children, adolescents, their first Halloween unsupervised. Then they grow into young adults with children of their own, and going through it all again. Time is mutable; both coiled tight and stretched apart. This experiment in time was a comfort to me in the first lockdown(s), because it reminded me that time was moving. Stuck inside a house for weeks on end made me feel like every day is the same, and nothing changed or happened. Annual reminded (reminds) me that time, in fact, hadn’t come to a standstill. All I have to do is look up and watch the clouds move past the window.

Modern Nature's new album, Island of Noise, was released January 28th, 2022 via Bella Union.

Further Reading:

Annual reviewed by Ollie Ranking for Loud and Quiet:

Island of Noise short film directed by Jack Cooper and Conan Roberts

Island of Noise reviewed by Rachel Aroesti for The Guardian:


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