“It was so powerful and also kind of dark… it started to produce itself. I remember thinking, ‘I’m not pulling any punches – it’s going to be close to the bone”: Mostly Autumn’s struggle to give late guitarist Liam Davison the send-off he deserved

Mostly Autumn
(Image credit: Sharon McInerney)

In 2017 Mostly Autumn co-founder Liam Davison suddenly died, leaving his friends and bandmates in shock – especially since many had assumed he’d one day return to the group he’d left three years previously. In 2019 they released White Rainbow, a tribute to their fallen companion, and vocalist/guitarist Bryan Josh told Prog that it had been as difficult as one might expect to make it.

“A dear old friend and fellow musician of 38 years, not to mention 18 years with Mostly Autumn, once expressed to me his love for the idea of a Viking funeral: ‘You know, when they fire the flaming arrow and it ignites the boat.’” Thus reads an inscription inside the booklet accompanying the new Mostly Autumn release, White Rainbow, the band’s 13th studio album since their inception back in the mid-90s.

The friend vocalist and guitarist Bryan Josh writes about is his band’s former guitarist Liam Davison. Josh first met Davison aged 12, when the pair were at school. “We’d been hanging around ever since,” he says warmly. “Almost every day really. Camping and climbing together and growing up in different bands. We were just always together, you know…”

It was an enduring friendship. Back in the early 90s, at a point when Mostly Autumn was more of an idea in Josh’s young head, inspired by his writing of the song The Night Sky, he was drinking with Davison in The Newfield Inn in Dunnerdale in their beloved Lake District. Josh, already smitten with the autumnal season, had decided that Autumn would form part of his band’s name. Davison pointed out a postcard bearing the legend “Mostly Sheep.” The word “mostly” struck Josh, and Mostly Autumn was born.

Liam Davison played guitar with Josh in Mostly Autumn from the band’s actual inception in 1995 through to 2014 (with a short break in 2007). He pursued his own musical visions, resulting in the release of The Treasure Of Well-Set Jewels in 2011. Back then one might reasonably assume that, at some point, Davison would rejoin the fold in the future.

What no one could have foreseen, however, was that, while at home on November 4, 2017, the 49-year old Liam Davison would suddenly pass away. The shock waves reverberated through the Mostly Autumn family and beyond, with their plaudits paying tribute to a lovely human being and fine musician.

It is therefore fitting that White Rainbow is an album that honours the memory of the band’s fallen comrade. This it does so in style; avoiding mawkish sentiment, it is instead fired by passion and loving memory. Many Mostly Autumn trademarks are there: Troy Donockley’s uilleann pipes and whistles add a Celtic touch to the first two songs, Josh’s evident passion for nature is writ throughout, while his searing guitar solos are still sometimes redolent of Pink Floyd’s David Gilmour; and there’s Olivia Sparnenn-Josh’s crystal-clear and heartfelt vocals carrying many of the songs.

But there’s a steely determination behind much of White Rainbow that makes it feel like one of the band’s most emboldened releases. It’s is helmed around two colossal pieces of music: the strident, symphonic title track, which at almost 20 minutes is the longest track the band have ever recorded; and Viking Funeral, which clocks in at just over half that. It is difficult to listen to Bryan singing ‘They’re gonna follow you into the night, Hey boy, oh boy, burning bright tonight’ and not feel a lump forming in your throat.

“I just think he loved the idea of a Viking funeral,” says Josh. “Being pushed out in the evening, the ashes floating into the sky. A real definite send-off. And something really beautiful and close to nature. We did love all that stuff.”

White Rainbow can’t have been an easy album to make. “No, no it wasn’t, without a shadow of a doubt,” he nods. “It was a big decision to go down that route, but I felt I had to, really. It was the only thing that was present when I started writing. It was so powerful and also kind of dark in a way, the emotion of it. And it started to produce itself. As a tribute I just thought it was the right thing to do, and the rest of the band did as well.

There’s a kind of echo about dealing with things in life, and also something that hints at a new life, as well as stuff that’s entirely separate

“I remember thinking, ‘I’m not pulling any punches with this – it’s going to be close to the bone and I’m going to say it as it is.’ And the majority of the album is about that, dealing with it. There are one or two songs that move away from it, but I kind of thought, ‘If you’re going to do it, do it.’ It’s not lying about anything, it’s not trying to be anything. It’s a very watertight, close-to-the-bone piece of work. And you can’t get much more emotional than that.”

Prog wonders how, when tackling such deeply personal and emotional subject matter, you even begin to start when creating something like this? “God,” Josh exclaims, taking a deep breath. “It started with just a keyboard initially, for Viking Funeral. I had this piece going round my head. And it kind of evolved from that, like I had no choice. The words came into my head and I recorded them and I had all the instruments. But it evolved from there… ‘I’m going to give him that Viking funeral.’

“I did organise his funeral in real life – obviously I couldn’t do a Viking funeral, but I used that as the catalyst and just went from there, taking myself and the listener back through those moments. It just kind of comes to you and then evolves.”

It’s a strong album, one of the band’s best, as if the guiding idea behind it has given Mostly Autumn extra impetus. But for all the evident quality of songs like Into The Stars, Run For The Sun and the plaintive Gone, it’s the two epic tracks that will really make White Rainbow an album fans will talk about for years to come. It’s an exhilarating ride, but doesn’t overplay the emotional card – and Josh agrees.

“I think listeners will be able to associate their own issues in life with the songs. In the first three songs it’s very tight to that but after that it does kind of move away from that, because you don’t want to be running people through the mill all the time anyway. There’s a kind of echo about dealing with things in life, and also something that hints at a new life, as well as stuff that’s entirely separate to it. And the song White Rainbow is probably the most separate to it all.

“It was really interesting to work on a piece like that, but it had to be there at the end of the album,” Josh continues on the title track. “It’s not like I went out to make it a really long song. It’s about an evening out in the Lake District around a very changing time when a lot of things happened just after, including Liam. But it had been a good night out and the song just had to happen the way it did. It deserved to have all those sections. It was almost 24 minutes long – but I managed to cut a few things back in the studio.”

I thought, ‘What a great name for an album, White Rainbow,’ and in retrospect it was a rare and beautiful thing, like Liam was

The album title comes from an exhilarating experience Josh had in the Lake District about a month before Davison’s untimely passing. Exiting his tent to answer the call of nature, he looked up to see the phenomenon known as a moonbow, or white rainbow, where moisture in the air is reflected against the moonlight, played out in front of him.

“It wasn’t like something you see every night in the sky; it was a cloudy night and it was just white right across the valley. There was a slither of moonlight. I saw it about one in the morning and thought, ‘Wow, what’s that?’ It was there for about a minute and a half and I thought it was the most incredible thing. Before I looked it up I had no idea they existed.

“I thought, ‘What a great name for an album, White Rainbow,’” Josh continues. “And in retrospect it was a rare and beautiful thing, like Liam was, and also it represents that element of change. A mystery, something to get your teeth stuck into, which is what I did. A great concept to have.”

The inscription in the booklet ends: “I loved Liam more than words can describe, as did many, so it only felt right that we give him one last send off in the best way we know, straight through the heart of Mostly Autumn, so join us on the lakeside…”

With White Rainbow, Bryan Josh and Mostly Autumn have achieved that and more; a beautiful piece of work for a fallen friend.

Jerry Ewing

Writer and broadcaster Jerry Ewing is the Editor of Prog Magazine which he founded for Future Publishing in 2009. He grew up in Sydney and began his writing career in London for Metal Forces magazine in 1989. He has since written for Metal Hammer, Maxim, Vox, Stuff and Bizarre magazines, among others. He created and edited Classic Rock Magazine for Dennis Publishing in 1998 and is the author of a variety of books on both music and sport, including Wonderous Stories; A Journey Through The Landscape Of Progressive Rock.