Stars In Battledress

Stars In Battledress put on a very special show in Camden and The Order Of The Voices gets the seal of approval from our guest reviewer.

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Acoustic guitar in hand, Craig Fortnam of Arch Garrison sings songs about hills and highways, long barrows, strands, quays and shorelines, and the characters who make tracks across them.

This is the same potent combination of ancient and modern that characterises his contributions to the brilliant but currently dormant North Sea Radio Orchestra.

James Larcombe and his brother Richard – aka Stars In Battledress – have also played in that group, and here James’ serpentine lines on analogue synth (a 1970s Italian Jen Synthetone, gear fans) weave around Fortnam’s often complex picking. Sometimes Fortnam’s style is reminiscent of Bert Jansch, but he’s also a fan of Malian blues guitarist Ali Farka Touré. The duo’s music is free-ranging, but with a haunting, observational sense of place.

“We’re going to play nine songs: we think they are catchy,” announces keyboard player – and Prog writer – Rhodri Marsden at the start of Prescott’s set. Currently a member of Scritti Politti while moonlighting in a TV themes tribute band made up of members from Frank Sidebottom’s former group, here his contribution is crucial but boiled right down. The compositions are formed out of incessant cyclical patterns, sometimes reduced to just one repeated note, producing a tension that is – eventually – resolved by big, sometimes John Barry-esque themes.

With Frank Byng’s taut, dry drumming, the rhythm section sound like they’re constantly trying to scratch an itch, and bass player Kev Hopper – formerly of Stump – employs extravagant slides, plays patterns on harmonics and attaches clamps to the strings for added overtones. Towards the end, Marsden informs us that the next number, Reversal, is funny, and it is, like avant-oompah music with comic, parping bass.

Richard Larcombe briefly guests on guitar, in Wilko Johnson-esque shape-throwing form, and the evening is rounded off when he joins his brother James on synth and piano for a potent duo set as Stars In Battledress. With just two instruments and voice, they cover a lot of ground. You can hear Robert Fripp in some of the guitar patterns, and a smidgeon of early 80s XTC, as well as Peters Hammill and Blegvad. The way they spin out their lines might take song structure into areas it doesn’t normally go, but it all makes sense and never sounds forced or contrived.

On the lengthy The Women From The Ministry, the melody opens out and then is redirected as James nags away on piano at a few notes with a single-minded intensity. When Richard complements all this with guitar and spectral, wordless vocals, it sounds like nothing else.

After the set, Richard reveals to Prog his love of Captain Beefheart’s Trout Mask Replica. This helps explain some of their music’s unusual logic. No doubt that particular album has also served time on Kev Hopper’s deck, making it another, more subliminal link between the musicians. Mike Barnes

Mike Barnes

Mike Barnes is the author of Captain Beefheart - The Biography (Omnibus Press, 2011) and A New Day Yesterday: UK Progressive Rock & the 1970s (2020). He was a regular contributor to Select magazine and his work regularly appears in Prog, Mojo and Wire. He also plays the drums.