Chances are that, even if I’d never listened to July Skies’ music before this disc, I’d still have had a pretty good idea of what to expect on The English Cold just by looking at the song titles and cover art. With song titles such as “Farmers and Villagers Living Within the Shadow of Aerodromes,” “Countryside of 1939,” and “Cloudless Climes and Starry Skies” and sleeve art filled with picturesque countrysides and pastoral landscapes (all with a hint of Gaussian Blur), it shouldn’t be at all surprising that The English Cold is an incredibly lush and atmospheric album.
However, rather than simply revelling in their Durutti Column and Slowdive-influenced sonics, Antony Harding and his cohorts do their best to give the music a poignant and emotional heft. The disc’s theme — it’s dedicated to airmen who lost their lives in World War 2 — gives it a certain nostalgic and elegiac quality right from the start. And the group’s diaphanous soundscapes exist in a certain timeless space all their own, further adding to the nostalgic atmosphere.
Given the disc’s theme, it is a fair bit starker and sparser than the band’s previous disc, 2002’s Dreaming of Spires. I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to imagine “East Anglian Skies,” with its ominous and spiralling drones, as the music that might be playing inside a pilot’s head as his bullet-torn plane goes tumbling towards Terra Firma wreathed in flames. It’s followed by the appropriately-titled “Death Was Where Your Sky Was,” which finds Harding imploring “Lord protect me on this day” over soft acoustic and electric guitars — again, conjuring up images of doomed pilots.
“Lost Airmen,” however, is the disc’s most somber moment. Harding sounds as if he’s directly addressing the ghosts of said airmen, his echoing voice whispering “See the sea/How it shines for you/One day I’ll see you again” over drones that rumble in the distance like far-off cannonfire.
Of course, “stark” and “somber” are relative terms here; The English Cold might still be one of the lushest albums you hear all year. Ringing guitars slowly unfold on “Farmers and Villagers Living Within the Shadow of Aerodromes” like the first fingers of dawn stretching across the horizon, their sparseness allowing for samples of folks recalling childhood images of bombers filling the English sky.
Harding’s voice makes it first appearance on the title track, as does a mourning harmonica, and immediately launches the listener into a wistful experience — even the song itself, with it’s slow outro, doesn’t sound like it wants to end and be forgotten. And “August Country Fires” is one of the disc’s more “active” tracks, in that it actually seems to be moving forward, thanks to a driving acoustic guitar that underscores everything, rather than spiralling and drifting like much of the disc.
Admittedly, there are moments when the music gets a bit too fluttery and delicate for it’s own good, but my biggest complaint is that these songs are all too brief. With the average track clocking in at just over 3 minutes, it seems to me that Harding could easily expand his songs and more deeply explore the sonic horizons he’s only hinting at. But then again, the songs’ brevity may be there only to add to the wistfulness that pervades the disc, the sense of something beautiful having faded away and been lost. And if that’s the case, than Harding succeeds brilliantly.