Voices In Isolation

Latest release from London one-man band The Slate Pipe Banjo Draggers is called Ongoing Seclusion Pieces, and one might say it’s Andy Rowe’s lockdown album…made during the lockdown period 2020 and themed entirely on the subject of staying in your “bubble”, because of COVID-19.

I say “lockdown album” as this does indeed seem to be emerging as a sub-genre of sorts, in this extraordinary time. Bulbils, a side project of Richard Dawson and Sally Pilkington of Hen Ogledd, come to mind; they made a staggering 50 albums starting in March 2020, publishing them on Bandcamp. They played together and recorded something almost every day. Perhaps their personal reaction to the crisis was to work as hard as possible and create music as art-therapy for themselves, and for others, and to roll up the sleeves to foster a sense of carrying on and building spirit. There’s also Steven Ball‘s All Living Can Anyone Be Here, a cassette which has two songs that relate directly to COVID-19, much more internalised and self-examining in their tone, expressing a nameless alarm in the face of an unknown force.

And then there’s Slate Pipe Banjo Draggers. This Ongoing Seclusion Pieces contains a generous 18 tracks (on 2 x CDRs, or a very long cassette), indicating Rowe has used the lockdown time to explore and experiment in a singularly prolific and productive manner. More to the point, though, the music is very heartfelt and emotional; the music is far more subdued than his previous upbeat releases, and covers a range of very genuine responses to this situation, including despair, loneliness, dread, grief, uncertainty, and (a lot of the time) simply not knowing what to do. He continues to play all these instruments (guitars, electronics, percussion, etc.) in his typical idiosyncratic and endearingly “clunky” fashion, but this time the loops and the repetitions and the DIY klonkings have a rather defeatist air, like a zoo animal beating its head on the bars of a cage, or a workman executing boring tasks as it’s the only thing that will occupy his mind to keep him from breaking down in tears.

To add to the general poignancy, many of the tracks (mostly on CD 1) have sampled voices and spoken word elements, usually enhanced with tape echo, their muffled words referring directly to the changes in society and daily life at the most commonplace level. Hearing these plain-speaking voices taken out of context and set to this melancholic music has a very strong impact, and Rowe pulls this off without turning the tune into something sentimental or bogus. At times, we could be hearing the voices of ghosts from what is left of our community, slowly disappearing before our eyes. The old family photographs on the cassette cover increase this sense of a sad yearning for a vanished past. If one were to carp, one might say that Ongoing Seclusion Pieces could perhaps use a little editing – not every one of these 18 tracks is an outright gem, and the work starts to go off the boil a bit by the second disc. Rowe still hasn’t learned how to structure his tunes for maximal effect, with uncertain starts and a sluggish pace, and occasionally seems unsure how (and when) to end a tune. However, this general “drag” is not only an integral part of his name, but also contributes to the general effect of this record, as it accurately reflects the shared dreary experience we have all had this last year, where each day is indistinguishable from the last, we can’t think clearly, and we are often stricken with a deathly, paralysing torpor. As such, this release is probably one of the most honest, personal, and vital responses to lockdown we’ve seen in print. From 16th July 2020.