Sam England, a nineteen year-old folk musician and student at the University of Exeter, is debuting his first studio EP: Equilibria. Equilibria is a five-track release whose particular themes I’ll unpack later, but it’s clear from the outset that we’re dealing with a traditionally ‘folky’ milieu. The album artwork shows a flock of birds shedding away from a tree, a typically British depiction of the season shifting to winter in the countryside. I’m sure I’ve set the same scene that was set for me before I listened to this release: think Laura Marling, think Stonehenge, crisp mornings, and drizzle.
Now that we’ve dealt with preconceptions, let’s talk about what the actual EP sounds like. The release opens with the introductory track, You, a delicately composed and perfectly played instrumental. The layered guitars pick out a really great set of melodic motifs to start everything up. The whole sound is extraordinarily clear and bright, so far fitting in with my cold winter morning preconceptions. It’s a good start musically, all the guitar playing is distinctly soothing and well executed, but what really sticks with me is the incredibly clear production. For a first time release, it’s pretty astonishing.
With Ares Australis, England’s vocals enter the mix. Over the top of a rock solid melody that is actually much more memorable than that of the introductory track, England’s voice is low and close. The sounds mix together very well, though at times England’s delivery can be just too flat. There’s a very fine line between husky and atmospheric, and sounding a little too breathy and monotonous. It’s a shame that this issue is so prevalent in these tracks, a lot of the time, England’s voice really fits the atmospheric picking of the instrumental.
Despite this issue, the musical and lyrical content of these songs is strong. Ares Australis examines long-distance pining, and builds to a great crescendo complete with e-bow. Panacea is harder to discern. England’s low vocals too hard to pick apart to tease out many themes without reading the lyric sheet. I suspect the subject must be very personal because even with lyrics spelled out, it’s quite hard to decipher the song’s meaning. That’s no bad thing by any means of course, after all how many of your favourite songs have utterly indecipherable lyrics?
My favourite melody on the EP comes from Saxifrage Speaks. The guitar playing here has a sense of cycling, of cascading. It’s the kind of structure I love in folk music, where a strong but relatively simple tune is noodled around to give a soothing, kind of plaintive effect. I’d make strong comparison’s to Bright Eyes’ A Song To Pass The Time. Sam’s vocals also benefit from the simplicity of the lyrics he’s delivering here, that don’t invite an effort to discern individual words, which is often frustrated elsewhere on the record.
The closing, eponymous track Equilibria, has a satisfying dark edge to it. More forceful picking is accompanied by a transformed vocal style from England. It works better than the extremely low and husky style heard elsewhere on the album. Sam’s lyrics are really strong on this track, and they’re allowed to connect through this newly throaty and clear vocal style. By the midway point, this track has incorporated some great guitar drumming, and the whole thing reaches a great crescendo. This track is definitely the strongest on the album, it benefits greatly from the different vocal style, and some simple but effective lyricism. If we’re to hear more from this artist in the future, and I hope we do, I’d like it to sound like this track.