Cosmograf is the musical project of Robin Armstrong (vocals, guitar, keyboards, bass, voices), a multi-talented composer, musician, vocalist and producer, whose studio in Hampshire, England, is his garden shed. With the help of some very talented friends, The Hay-Man Dreams is his seventh studio album and, like its predecessors, its central theme is a very personal one to Armstrong. He then elaborates and expands on the theme through a series of musical movements, in this case six interlocking songs.
These songs tell the mythical tale of a farm labourer, who meets an early death, leaving behind a wife and young family. His widow lovingly builds a scarecrow effigy as a shrine to him, and the eponymous Hay-Man spends his days dreaming of life beyond his field. Its inspiration is Armstrong's great grand-father, a gamekeeper and farm labourer, who died in mysterious circumstances in a ditch at the side of the road.
Joining Armstrong is drummer, Kyle Fenton, vocalist Rachael Hawnt, Matt Stevens on guitar and ambient effects, Big Big Train's violinist Rachel Hall and David Allan as narrator.
An excerpt from the poem, The Scarecrow by Walter de la Mare forms part of the slow and gentle build-up to Tethered And Bound. There are delicate shades of Pink Floyd's Echoes to add to the tension in the sound, before the musical story begins quietly and slightly eerily as Armstrong's clear, distinct voice enters. It moves along slowly but deliberately, depicting the plight of the hay-man rooted in his field, looking ahead at the monotony of the coming days, so brilliantly caught in the music.
An acoustic guitar begins Trouble In The Forest, a lovely, short, lyrically descriptive song, that sets the scene of the hay-man's immediate environs during which Stevens' transcendent guitar takes it into another dimension. Again, the musical arrangement is understated and almost metronomic in its precision.
On The Motorway, Armstrong shows remarkable technique in his guitar and a terrific turn of vocal phrasing, emphasising how the hay-man sees the cars careering past as his possible means of escaping his monotony - in his dreams of course. There's an unexpected diversion of mood when heavy guitar riffing comes in and Armstrong's voice turns rock-bluesy over keyboards.
It's a style which really suits him and taps into his love of bands like Deep Purple as the ensuing “out there” classic rock guitar solo further demonstrates.
A simple recurring piano motif is all it takes to evoke the innate sadness in Cut The Corn, the hay-man returning to his meditations in a muddy field. There's some gorgeous orchestration and Spanish guitar to further enhance this overarching sombre mood.
Melancholy Death Of A Gamekeeper is again a simple song, sung and played beautifully, resonant guitar and flowing piano accompanying the song dedicated to the plight of Armstrong's great grand-father.
Rachael Hawnt and Rachel Hall feature prominently on The Hay-Man, the final track. Hawnt's voice is haunting and urgent, while Allan appears again with another extract from The Scarecrow. Rocking guitars feature as Hawnt's voice soars skywards. Then there's a distinct mood change and Hall's plaintive violin, accompanied by birdsong, evokes a feeling of the seasons changing and new hope in the hay-man's existence before Armstrong's dreamy voice drifts in for the final time.
Once again, Armstrong has produced a beautiful, absorbing and deeply affecting album, full of atmosphere and emotion, accompanied by some superlative playing and singing. Miss it at your peril - and spare a thought next time you pass a field and see a scarecrow.
**** Alison Reijman
Where to buy?
All Rights Reserved Background Magazine 2017