ESKINA – We Are The Moon

Following on from 2019’s ‘Everything Is Coloured’, ‘We Were The Moon’ is another fine, mellow yet complex work from Dutch instrumental act Eskina. Its ten ambient oriented pieces have very strong roots of chamber music, with a dominant cello and viola used effectively throughout, and by twisting through arrangements with slight overtones of prog and plenty of massive soundtrack-like moods, the musicians create something that’s both rich and rewarding.

Starting the album in the most understated way, ‘Prologue / Waking Up In An Old World’ opens with mournful strings, weeping a repetitive and slow refrain, over which plucked acoustic sounds almost hint at a rather sad melody from Mike Oldfield. As the sound grows and the key changes, the countermelody over the strings begins to busy itself, but never in a way that ever feels busy. By the time the cello sounds are augmented by viola, giving more of a full chamber feel, the sad tones begin to feel even richer, whilst a clean toned electric guitar offers slight melodies on the fringes of quiet, 70s prog rock. Eskine’s abilities to create something that feels soundtrack-like are proven very quickly here, but a few bars of the following ‘Eudalmonia’ really shows how the ensemble aren’t keen to be pigeonholed, since the ambient elements are driven by groove laden drums and a bass part worthy of Jah Wobble. In creating a smart blend of ambient sound, chamber pop and dub, the music could probably appeal to a broader spectrum of people than merely those who like orchestral instruments. Perhaps the closest musical comparison would be the more spacious elements of Beth Orton’s ‘Galaxy of Emptiness’ from 1996, and yet there’s very little about the Eskine sound that could be labelled as retro.

In another slight change of mood, ‘Maitri’ mixes the strings with very 90s grooves. The drum beats present an almost baggy danceability (live, not programmed) and muted guitar parts lend a busy edge from the outset. It isn’t long before the guitar parts are swamped by some fantastic bass, first wielding some huge funk – almost in an Afrobeat style – then drowing the melody with a wave of distortion. The strings slide between the grooves surprisingly naturally, soaring, crying, and eventually grumbling disdainfully beneath the funk. Although this is disappointingly short at just over three minutes – it’s got the kind of locked in groove that could sustain twice that length – there’s plenty here for lovers of David Byrne’s sonic experiments to lose themselves in, as well as providing fans of acid jazz legends Red Snapper a pleasing “chill out” alternative.

Leaning further towards ambient prog, ‘Setting Sun’ blends a lilting melody with clean finger picked guitar, and although this very much fits with a couple of earlier pieces on this album – especially once the cello and viola join the slow, haunting tones – there are fleeting moments where you might even feel this could be an interlude from Steve Hackett or Ant Phillips. It’s one of the album’s more slow burning tunes, but time reveals something strangely appealing, whilst the title cut reverts to a very soundtrack oriented mood. Echoing guitars hint at a love of Jonny Greenwood; soaring strings call back to a couple of Thomas Newman scores and, eventually, the mix of quiet, mood music and deep drums presents the ultimate mix of cinematic beauty and mellow prog rock. In many ways, it’s peak Eskina – the string section are prominent, the guitars are retro yet stately and a weird, crashy interlude suggests someone within the ranks has spent time being bewildered by King Crimson and Hatfield & The North, despite such complexities being half a world away from this band’s typical sound.

Obviously, if Eskina have caught your ear thus far, the rest of this album will offer many similar treats for the more sophisticated ear. ‘True Love Waits’ teases with a slow drum beat and jazz bass, lending the usual clean guitar and string set up a much darker tone than before. From a melodic perspective, it isn’t as instant, but it still has a richness that’ll appeal to lovers of band-oriented film scores, especially once a sad viola melody fills space against a couple of electronic treatments. ‘Black On Maroon’, meanwhile, shifts the focus further towards the viola with some lovely playing from Kellen McDaniel, making Eskina sound like purveyors of the ultimate soundtrack whilst a few smart electronic sounds tease against a steady beat, and the mysteriously named ‘Part Two’ utilizes pizzicato strings underscoring a soaring melody, before a steady pop/rock beat cuts through, and an something akin to an old Fleetwood Mac bassline provides an unexpected musical anchor. This is the closest Eskina come to being a conventional pop/rock band, but the instrumental vibe and heavy focus upon the strings continues to set them on a path that’ll chime more obviously with progressive, jazz and soundtrack devotees. By the time this slides effortlessly into ‘Dreaming of Each Other’, where the strings are driven against another very 90s beat, there’s very little doubt that Eskina are absolute masters of their chosen cross-genre sound. Here, bassist Joop De Graaf plays up a quiet storm, twisting his four strings with a fluid funkiness, retaining lots of his own distinctive tone – as demonstrated up to this point – but also suggesting a love for Bill Laswell. Finally, with ‘Epilogue / Nighty Night’ bringing everything full circle with a quiet use of strings and more of a traditional chamber feel augmented by sparse guitar work, there’s little doubt that Eskina have created one of the finest albums of 2021.

Although Eskina work with soundscapes and moods which never really rise to obvious crescendos, there’s plenty about the music throughout ‘We Were The Moon’ that actually manages to be memorable. It isn’t massively hooky, obviously; it’s effective in that similarly understated way that a Vangelis soundtrack or pieces by Thomas Newman and Craig Armstrong manage to find their way under the skin. At the right time and in the perfect setting – specifically late evening – this is a fantastic listen.

December 2021