Do the terms ‘sound-art’ and ‘concept album’ make you wince? That might be about to change. If anyone has the power to allay any fear or suspicion surrounding these forms of audio artistry, it’s Land Observations.
The Grand Tour is the second LP from Land Observations, the current moniker of artist and musician James Brooks. The previous album, Roman Roads IV -XI, centres around – guess what ? - the history and geography of Roman Roads. This sounds like a dry topic, and it would be, if Brooks wasn’t capable of reanimating an ancient landscape and imbuing it with life, simply by strumming his six-string. His most recent sonic ramblings through time and space have transported him forward several hundred years to the 18th century, the era of the Grand Tour: a ritual undertaken by wealthy young men, which involved travelling around Europe in order to get a bit of culture in them before returning to breed, manage estates and act like sensible, grown-up men-in-tights. It was like inter-railing for the landed aristocracy.
Each of the eight tracks on the album is named after a different point on an imaginary Tour itinerary: “Flatlands And The Flemish Roads”, “Nice to Turin”, “Ode to Viennese Streets”. Land Observations is a project which focuses on sparse instrumentation and minimalist simplicity. The entire album is played almost exclusively on guitar. Brooks builds layers of texture, accruing motif after motif, slotting them together like cogs inside a well-oiled machine. Nothing extraneous. Everything is perfectly functional, perfectly balanced.
Every piece on the album acts, not so much as a descriptor of the place it is associated with, but rather as a means of obliquely evoking a specific atmosphere or state of mind. There is no musical pastiche to be found here; even when recalling the waltzes of Vienna, the um-pah-pah bass line which immediately triggers memories of Germanic folk music (or, perhaps, of the musical Oliver) is taken out of its waltz-time context and re-situated among languorous strings.
The idea of The Grand Tour conjures images of Byron and his peers, drinking in Vienna and cavorting in Venice. Brooks’ Grand Tour has no debauchery, no riotous carnival, no drunken stupors. It has straight roads, wide-open landscapes, the metallic tang of air mountain air on the tongue. Brook’s Tour is pure contemplation and relentless momentum. it is the product of a mind that can obsessively study the contours of a map and see each line as distinctively as wrinkle on a face; telling and beautiful, a palimpsest of history. The Grand Tour is almost penitential in it’s fervour, but remains elegantly understated. It is the sonic equivalent of Bauhuas design.
If your faith in the concept album is failing, The Grand Tour will restore it. And if you have any long, trans-national train journeys coming up, this album will be great for those, too.