VINCENT CARR’S SUMIC – Strolling Early Morning

One of the UK prog scene’s true underground talents, Vincent Carr’s complex acoustic work and love for pastoral soundscapes has helped create some interesting recordings over the years. On 2016’s ‘Rekindled’ he injected a very strong British folk rock vibe into some largely instrumental pieces, and on the follow up, ‘New Paeans’, he truly unleashed his inner Mike Oldfield on lengthy arrangements that blended prog, new age sounds and a hefty dose of acoustic complexity. Obviously he was working on a thousandth of Oldfield’s basic 70s budget, but the outcome certainly wasn’t in any way inferior. After that, Vince released a couple of ambient, improvised works that showed off yet another side to his talent. Those were approached with interest by a few of his biggest online champions, but were never designed for mass acceptance.

Returning to something more accessible, 2021’s ‘Strolling Early Morning’ will certainly offer far more of the sounds they loved on SUMIC’s bigger albums. The brief opening piece, ‘Held In Awe’ is a relatively simple acoustic workout. Its hard plucked strings convey a rather basic melody, but this isn’t just a straight folk piece. As before, there’s something deep within Carr’s chosen tone that hints at the medieval; a floaty, wistful quality could seem slight, but thanks to the performer’s strident tone, those melodies catch the ear immediately. Despite only being an intro, it’s both a refresher for those who loved ‘Rekindled’ and a lovely introduction for those hearing Carr for the very first time. ‘Look Ahead’ ups the tempo slightly with an introduction blending finger picked sounds, an accordion and something that sounds like a mandolin. Instantly, there’s a call back to the more Freddie Phillips-centric elements of ‘Rekindled’, but at the same time, it’s not a simple rehash of Carr’s past work. As the melody explodes into something much fuller, a jubilant mood drives the music whenever the acoustic guitars are at the fore, and by the mid point, the combination of pure jangle, Oldfield-ish playfulness and prog-folk charm swells into one of Carr’s most memorable melodies to date. Stretching out across eight minutes, it feels a little repetitive on first listen, but – as with previous SUMIC works – time spent will uncover lots of lovely flourishes. In this case, there are flashes of melody that evoke memories of Chris Rea instrumentals circa 1985, a snatch of music on loan from an old Faces ballad and even a couple of nods to McGuinness-Flint. When put together, it sounds distinctly like one of Carr’s own multi-textured instrumental workouts and a very confident progression from ‘New Paeans’.

The reflective ‘Seascape’ is a genuine highlight, but it’s also the kind of tune that merely ambles. It begins with a lengthy drone, but rather than taking the tired – and obvious – Floydian route beloved by so many prog oriented musicians, Carr adds a different twist to the score-like sounds in complimenting the backdrop with various electric noodles. At first, the notes seem sparse, disconnected and even unsure of themselves; soon enough, though, there’s a lovely bluesy feel. As the relative melody grows, it begins to suggest that influence has been taken from some of Mark Knopfler’s brilliant film soundtrack works, such is its lovely wandering nature. The main take from this is how Carr seems to be absorbed by its almost improvisational quality, but at the same time, his tones and feel are very inviting to the listener. There’s nothing here that seems elitist or in any way self-important. As the last notes fade, the mood takes a drastic shift when the album’s title cut finds Carr in a more song-oriented mood than ever before. The jaunty number begins with a very folk influenced riff, and in fact, the tune and corresponding natural vocal might suggest Carr had been listening to Ralph McTell during the pandemic lockdown of 2020. He’s worked within folk textures before – his ‘Re-Kindled’ release from 2016 has a very pastoral feel; all English countryside and medieval castles – but this is something different. It’s the sound of a prog(ish) musician daring to progress. The main acoustic riff always comes with a strident confidence; the vocal refrains – whether Carr’s own natural lead or the wordless hums used to great effect throughout – are very English. What’s clear is that they are the perfect marriage in terms of melodic ease. Those who love prog with a capital P need not worry, though, since the happier folk strains are complimented by a very familiar voice and guitar sound, and the electric parts of the track very much echo the more melodic bits of ‘New Paeans’ in the best possible way, with a tone that falls squarely between Oldfield and a solo Knopfler circa ‘The Ragpicker’s Dream’. In sweeping away so much of the previous album’s complex nature and concentrating instead on a pure melody, Carr proves himself as a songwriter more than ever, and even if some of the hardened proggers aren’t convinced – at least not straight away – this is very much the kind of thing that could endear itself to the more adventurous folk-rock fan.

Having set some great moods in place, everything is almost derailed by ‘A Village Childhood’, a piece with a strong melodic heart but, unfortunately – at least at first – also the feel of something a little unfinished. The slow melody shared between a cautiously approached piano and demo quality synths takes forever to unfold, and it isn’t until various mandolin passages emerge that it’s even clear what Carr has in mind. Four minutes into the six minute instrumental, the best moments appear far, far too late, but when they do, any apprehension is swept away. With the arrival of the mandolin and harmonic lead guitar tone, there’s a mood straight from the second side of ‘Tubular Bells’ and Carr isn’t exactly shy in showing it, but – original or not – it demonstrates how gifted he is as a multi-instrumentalist. Thankfully, for the sake of everyone’s sanity, he doesn’t go as far as adding The Piltdown Man, but the broader melodic strokes of this number come so obviously from some of Oldfield’s work leading up to that, it’s still enough to bring back a world of childhood fear, before the absolutely massive ‘Death and The Lady’ reintroduces the earlier folk influences, but works them in a completely different style. The first part of the track unveils a subtle tune, reliant far more on Vincent’s vocal to lend the folk tones, whilst the bulk of the music emerges from aa wavering synth and treated guitar. Teetering between strange ambient moods and a dark, unsettling prog, it’ll only connect with those keen to keep an open ear and even more open mind. In some ways, it never quite knows what it wants to be, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. It’s fair to say that lovers of ‘New Paeans’ will love the massive crescendos within this piece, and although it doesn’t necessarily alienate those who’ve gravitated towards ‘Rekindled’s more pastoral shades, it’s certainly far moodier than anything Carr has offered previously. In a very prog-centric way, this essentially brings most of the traits from previous works into one epic, and although the budgetary constraints can be a little obvious at times, the artistry created from what’s essentially a homespun set up remains impressive.

In closing, Carr chooses another brief melody to wind everything down, and ‘Aftermaths & Beginnings’ is little more than a sketch in some ways – mostly powered by spacious soft acoustic chords – but a few listens helps to uncover a the kind of melody that, had Harold Budd played it on piano, it would be considered an ambient classic. At the point the repeated seven or eight notes have run their course, a crying electric guitar is brought in as a welcome counterpoint. It’s something of a surprise that rather than the expected Oldfield or Steve Hackett influence, that Carr’s gentle touch falls closer to a quick noodle from Duane Allman. Regardless of the sound, the motivation is key, and this brief colourant is all that’s needed to lift everything just before the final fade.

Whenever Vincent releases new music, there’s always something to enjoy, but parts of this album from SUMIC are as different from ‘New Paeans’ as ‘New Paeans’ was from ‘Rekindled’. There are familiar sounds at its heart, but it represents a DIY artist ever creeping forward, unafraid to change, and willing to allow his natural talent to grow. It can be other worldly; it can be dark and even bloody scary. Sometimes, it’s both of those things at once, but for those who love the more new age side of British prog and aren’t afraid of folk textures, ‘Strolling Early Morning’ is an album that’s certainly worth exploring.

October 2021