Bishopskin stun with debut album 'Babble'
Words by Chiara Strazzulla
Anyone who thinks the UK alternative music scene has no surprises left in store has clearly never heard of Bishopskin.
Credit: Martin Eito
What started as a curious lockdown project has now grown into one of the quirkiest, most interesting things to have happened in music recently: genre-defying, challenging on multiple levels, fuelled rather than hindered by ambition, Bishopskin have now released their debut album, Babble, via Isolar Records (another curious project worth mentioning: one of the most interesting new small labels working with alternative artists, which is seeing its commitment to creative freedom repaid with banger after banger).
It feels like the inevitable endgame after a series of single releases that have grown more complex and more unexpected as time went; but it also feels like so much more. A truly distinctive kind of folk-rock with a punk soul, the record evokes images of Old England and rural gothic, via the Virgin Mary and William Blake. If you’re thinking that sounds completely removed from any real lived experience, though, you’re wrong: Babble is also a deeply intimate record, filled with open-hearted explorations of human nature, private feelings, moments of doubt and moments of revelation - and not a single break-up song in sight.
The ability to explore the personal by way of the cosmic has been one of Bishopskin’s strongest suits from day one, and the album is in a way a culmination of this. The Christian imagery the band is fond of may feel hostile at first - we are no longer used to it in our contemporary times, and often it elicits negative reactions - but Bishopskin are extremely clever, and extremely earnest, in recognising an universal language of spirituality in it, and channelling it through lyrics and sound alike. And so for instance Ave Maria speaks of every glimpse of hope sighted in a moment of self-doubt, and Hey Little Sister will speak to anyone who has experienced a deep bond with a sibling.
'Babble' front cover artwork
The title of the album itself evokes the Tower of Babel, the point at which languages diverge and misunderstanding starts; but also another kind of babbling, that of speaking in tongues - openly mentioned in the music also - the universal non-language that is by its own cryptic nature immediately understandable to everyone. Bishopskin’s music works like this, too: for all that the lyrics speak of the soul, the music comes from the gut. It is visceral, earthly, with deep roots that draw from the most primal elements of the human experience. This is aided most of all by the vocals: Tiger Nicholson’s immediately recognisable bass, capable in turn of roaring, declaiming, and soothing, but also by the backing vocals, which work perfectly together in the creation of harmonies (indeed, it feels reductive to call them backing vocals at all: one has the feeling that if you were to turn most of the songs into acapella pieces, they would somehow still work, provided that you kept the same singers).
'Babble' back cover artwork
Opposed and complementary to this visceral element, there is an impressive amount of technical skill. James Donovan’s guitars, with their trademark finger-picking sound, are almost clinical in their precision, Hana Miyagi’s violin, expressionist as it sounds, is constantly flawless in its delivery, and more generally it is not simple to keep so many parts moving in harmony and make it seem easy: the band has gone through a lot of growth both literal and metaphorical, evolving from a stripped-down duo to one of the most crowded live line-ups I have ever seen. It is a testament to their ability that the music hasn’t lost its spontaneous feeling in spite of the huge amount of layers it contains: on the contrary, songs like Down on the Moor or Jerusalem sound almost like they are incorporating an element of improvisation, and there is something of the jam session - in a good way - about the whole album. Perhaps this is Bishopskin’s greatest asset: the ability to infuse everything they do with a stark sincerity, whether it is turning an old Medieval hymn into a bouncy post-folk earworm (Stella Splendens) or diving into a childhood memory and blending it with a Blake poem (Mother’s Steel Bike).
Babble is an album that defies definition: in a true Tower-of-Babel moment, there really isn’t a word to fully describe it, and there is something almost confrontational in the way that it refuses to conform to any genre constraints. Challenging is perhaps the best term for it, both in the way that it asks a contemporary listener to delve into themes which may at first appear tough to approach, and in the way that it consistently refuses simplification, trusting in those who listen to understand anyway.
Most of all, one is left at the end with an awareness that Bishopskin are storytellers as much as they are musicians, and the story they are telling is a beautifully strange one, drawing from a very old past to express feelings that are very much alive in the present.
Listen to 'Babble'
Catch Bishopskin live:
3rd Nov - The Lexington.
Keep up to date with Hideous Records & Mag