I should say before we go any further that Derbyshire trio Haiku Salut have been my band crush for a couple of years at least now. Take this as caveat on what follows or as confirmation of how their music affects me.
The General is Haiku Salut’s fourth album and the recording of the score they were commissioned to write to accompany a remastered print of Buster Keaton’s eponymous 1926 silent classic. As such it definitely sounds and feels like a Haiku Salut record with its familiar mix of accordeon, piano, synths, percussion, electronics and samples. The 23 tracks here often incorporate the band’s intriguing knack of making the seemingly disparate and fractured flow seamlessly.
On the other hand the dynamics of the film narrative and the need to support rather than distract from it created limitations and structures that they might otherwise have evaded.
Anyone familiar with the regular Haiku Salut live experience will be aware that virtually every piece involves multiple instruments being used by all three interchangeably. Sensibly for The General the band recognised the risks this entailed with music cued to a film. Amongst other self-imposed restrictions that meant only one track here includes accordeon, previously a major component of the HS sound.
But what of the actual music? As an album without the film behind it, does it work? Well, yes and in two different ways. Many of the tracks here can be extracted as individual pieces successfully. At the same time the 80 minute whole has a coherence and flow that is effective greater than the sum of its parts.
It is a warm album, right from the opening skittering clicks underpinning then making way for lingering piano chords of ‘Start’ and the similar shifting layers of electronics and keys in ‘Intro’. Listening through headphones really emphasises the nuances as the components entwine, taking predominant and supporting roles. Rhythmic patterns such as the beat of ‘Going Back’ are initially simple but as drones ebb and flow above the siimplicity evolves. Although Haiku Salut sound nothing like Thelonious Monk I am nevertheless reminded of how he created intensely catchy refrains that were simultaneously difficult to follow as they changed subtly.
There are other moments that are half-familiar, the beautiful Romantic piano refrain that opens ‘Enlist’ almost expands into something recognisable before leading us away. Somewhere I almost caught a hint of 70s electronic prog. The last 30 seconds of ‘Train Steal’ have a classic electronic boom boom crash pattern that could accelerate into a techno dance piece in other hands. ‘Hide’ too opens with big beats and electronic stutters.
And there are unique sounds. Apparently the deep resonant drone on ‘Reunited’ is Gemma’s voice transposed. Other samples include raindrops (really a household shower) and reversed, manipulated conventional instruments.
Many of the iconic scenes from Keaton’s film were filmed without effects. Most notably the trainwreck scene (sorry if that’s a spoiler, but you’ve had 93 years to see the film!) Although Haiku Salut use effects they retain an organic, human feel to most of this album. In places there’s what Gemma described on the Haiku Salut blog as a ‘cartooonish in a good way’ use of guitar effects that undercuts any hint of sterility in the artificial beats. Sophie explains this better than I can, lacking the technical vocabulary of music:
We wanted to write something wistful and dreamy. To achieve that Gemma put the electric guitar through a pedal which sounds like a warm and happy memory returning from a distant past.
That’s the single ‘Loves’ she’s describing but it sums up much of how I feel about Haiku Salut and The General. They take the precise and formal and transpose it through metaphor and simile to infuse it with a rich complexity and delicate simplicity at the same time. They evoke whilst mostly eschewing excessive literalism.
I said earlier that parts of the album succeed as individual tracks, but such is the Haiku way that within these tracks there are moments of uplift, epiphany, poignancy. The tentative piano a minute into ‘Reunited’; the epic drum tones of ‘Cannon’; the strident intro to ‘Rock River’ and the gentle fades of ‘The Crash’ stand out. The spaces throughout that let the music breathe. My favourite track today is ‘The Flood’ for combinations of every aspect of Haiku Salut I love but tomorrow I might say something else.
Officially The General was released on 2nd August but CD copies were available at the end of April. In those three months I’ve listened to pretty much every genre of music but I return to this album almost daily and am still a long way from discovering all its concealed delights. I love this album.
Haiku Salut will be performing the live score at screenings of The General later this year in York (11 Sept), London Royal Albert Hall (19 Oct) and Leicester (18 Dec).
The General is available on Secret Name records.