Western Skies Motel is the project of Danish musician René Gonzàlez Schelbeck, who apparently spent his youth hurting his ears in local punk bands before taking a big change of direction as he matured, becoming the craftsman of rich and emotionally complex instrumental music. His new album, Settlers, out now on Arizona label Lost Tribe Sound, is rooted in a sense of time and place that is distinctly un-Danish – consisting of ten instrumental tracks which evoke the wide vistas of the American West through a blend of folk guitars, modern classical arrangements and experimental drone elements. This sense of place extends beyond the music right up to the album’s Steinbeckian title and album art, the whole package sepia-toned and dust-blown, wrapped up in wax paper and twine.
One of the strengths of Settlers is its ability to wordlessly conjure images, most often evocations of life on the American landscape. Pinning specific thoughts and scenes to instrumental music is a dangerous game, as like all art it’s obviously open to interpretation, but you can’t help but let your brain wander over what it might mean. To me it sounds unmistakably rural, vast plains viewed through a wide-angled lens. Take for example, ‘Migratory Birds’,which sounds like the sensation of watching the grey sheets of an approaching storm blow across a stubbled prairie, birds buffeted in the eddies of the autumnal breeze as they take to the wing to leave for winter.
This isn’t folk music that makes you feel enclosed in a rickety old barn or smoky barroom, but instead gives the sensation of viewing the landscape from a choice vantage point, a dusty window or quiet hillside. The tracks sound brown and grey and straw-yellow, recalling words like arid and hardscrabble and timeworn, sounding as if they have been around as long as the hills that inspired them. As the label’s blurb put it:
“[The] delicate ecosystem of these songs…feels as organic and nuanced as that of the natural world. Just as a tree’s leaves wither and fall; a fire sparks and expands only to expend its last bit of fuel, extinguished and left for ash. So true are the parallels we find in our own existence, the complex ritual of growing old and returning to dirt. Decay is inevitable for all life, yet through this it becomes the rich soil for all things proceeding”
As well as the surface imagery there is also something else, something shadowy and strange, that pervades the album. The fingerpicked guitar work is downright hypnotic, dancing campfire flames of sound that tumble on hidden rhythms as if by their own volition. There is also a nagging, lingering noise that adds a sense of trouble or weirdness, a reminder that even the most rudimentary communities harbour secrets. ‘Two Worlds’ is probably the best example of this, the usual guitar sitting on top of a sound that sounds immediately bigger, an almost geological shearing sound that eventually drowns out all else.
And, although this is primarily a guitar album, some of the songs are not guitar-based at all, like ‘Whelm’, which swells with an ambient majesty, the end of ‘Whirl’ which sounds caught on a spiralling breeze, and the closing track ‘After a Storm’, which is thick with droning harmonium that brightens as the track’s eight minutes progress, like the sun slowly peeking over the horizon after a night of gales and thunder.
Western Skies Motel has made a great album, one which conjures a land that’s as hard and unforgiving as it is beautiful. This is music that has dust in its cracks, that tastes like dry, sun-baked earth. Settlers is out now on Lost Tribe Sound. As usual with the label, you can order it on beautiful 12″ vinyl which is almost as much an art package as a music medium (but has sadly sold out – badger the label for a second press), on CD, or as a digital download via the Western Skies Motel Bandcamp page.