Arch Garrison
‘The Bitter Lay’
Believers Roast Records

If you didn’t know much about a band or their music, you might decide that their name and album title
held clues as to what a release sounded like. I’ve done this for years, and I’d estimate with around 40%
accuracy, so preconceptions aren’t things I rely on much nowadays. Arch Garrison’s ‘The Bitter Lay’ does
have a certain resonance to it though – mouldering if not actually ruined stonework, something vaguely
military in the background, rusted cannons and mossy pathways, and a sour tasting cup of coffee to wash
all that down with. Or something. As for the music, it’s likely to be the sort of relentlessly upbeat
Mumford & Sons type mandolin thrash we’ve heard so much of, speedy folk tunes with doom laden lyrics
about various protagonists meeting with all manner of unpleasant endings.

As I said, I’m about 40% correct with those sort of predictions. ‘The Bitter Lay’ is very far from the feast
of melancholy its title suggests. It’s an electro-acoustic guitar album filled with sharply played melodies,
varying between sea shanties, folk rock, medieval sounding pieces and whimsical songwriting. Indeed,
there’s an unmistakable whiff of Syd Barrett around some tracks on ‘The Bitter Lay’. This may all seem a
bit much to take in but Craig Fortnam and James Larcombe are both members of North Sea Radio
Orchestra, have been making albums for about two decades, and know what they’re doing in the studio.
Those guitars though. The finely plucked and multitracked six string sound is really what gives the album
its impetus, with the tunes kept resolutely upbeat even in the more reflective moments. This gives ‘The
Bitter Lay’ an inescapable tone of minimalism, but listen closely and there is an appreciable subtlety at
work behind the guitars. Synths and percussion make understated appearances throughout the album,
particularly the latter half, and a slide guitar turns up at one moment. The unremitting pace of the
instrumentation left me wondering if the album should be seen as either a piece of composition or a
concept album, although I think the truth is that Arch Garrison are just doing what they want to. Certainly
their enthusiasm shows through across the eleven tracks, and ‘The Bitter Lay’ requires more than one
listen to appreciate its partially hidden depths.