Spurred on by the positive response to last year’s more inviting album Sunset Cavaliers, Irish music historian Colin Harper has revisited his earlier instrumental release. Initially a very limited edition of 100 copies, 2010’s Titanium Flag returns, much expanded on top of the obligatory remastering. With three new pieces and four vocal tracks now bookending the project, it’s the most melancholy concept album inspired by Arctic exploration from the fourth century BC to the present day you’ll hear this side of the North Pole.
Lovingly packaged with detailed vintage maps, history notes and a dash of geopolitics (Russia planted the titular titanium flag on the seabed a decade ago, to claim future mining rights after the ice has melted), it’s a simpler affair once stripped down to the actual music. Pianoled, quiet jazz with a pinch of folk, it keeps Harper’s own acoustic guitars veiled in the background, allowing violin, clarinet and flugelhorn to assist that dominant piano in creating a sparse, wintry soundscape.
Two longer jams, however, provide a shot of adrenaline. The 12-minute title track sees Harper cutting loose on electric guitar, his soloing somewhere between Neil Young and J Mascis. Its newly recorded counterpart, Greenland: East To West, the muse for which is 19th-century Norwegian adventurer Fridtjof Nansen, is graced by guitar from former Focus man Jan Akkerman, clearly a hero of Harper’s. Also adorning this standout is ex-Mahavishnu Orchestra flautist Premik Russell Tubbs, while Phil Shiva Jones, once of Quintessence, guests elsewhere. This pair of rockier grooves lift an album that’s at times too introspective and Chopin-esque, giving warm red blood to its chilly intellectualism.
The contemporaneous vocal numbers tagged onto the end sound like they’re from a different album, which technically they are. While its frozen oceans are almost reclusive in their moodiness, Titanium Flag is a work of near-devotional purity, and as an extended instrumental passage, it succeeds as a study of courageous spirits and loneliness.