Sol Invictus – The Hill of Crosses
Sol Invictus was formed by Tony Wakeford, several years after leaving the ranks of Death In June. In 1988 he began recording music again under the nom de plume Sol Invictus. In the course of 12 years Tony Wakeford has released around 15 albums as Sol Invictus, 2 as L’Orchestre Noir, and collaborations with Nurse With Wound’s Steven Stapleton, the young composer Matt Howden, and the US artist Tor Lundvall.
Unlike the preceeding Sol Invictus recordings, on The Hill of Crosses Tony Wakeford has drawn upon a varied and select band of musicians on consecutive albums for the first time. As a result of the talented musicians surrounding Wakeford, The Hill of Crosses manages to explore other musical avenues whilst still embracing the minor chords associated with by Sol Invictus. Currently at Wakeford’s disposal is Sally Doherty, acclaimed solo artist, member of Sieben and documentary music maker; Karl Blake of Lemon Kittens/ Shock Headed Peters fame; Matt Howden, solo artist and member of Sieben and Raindogs, recently nominated for Radio 3’s Young Composer of the Year; and Eric Roger of Gaë Bolg.
The sound of Sol Invictus is now a lush orchestrated unit of guitar, flute, trumpet, violin and bass. Wakeford’s acoustic guitar remains the focal point of the music but it’s the additional instrumentation that lends the music its richness and immediacy. Howden’s soaring violin, Doherty’s melodic flute, Roger’s trumpet and Blake’s rumbling bass that weave in and out of the musical tapestry.
Tracks such as German Requiem with its sad trumpet calling and the swirling folk sound of Eve, where Wakeford and Doherty duet in almost call and response type lyric over Howden’s incessant manic violin playing are excellent examples of Sol’s mature sound. Several tracks opt for a more atmospheric approach utilising both melody and dissonance such as the opening Chime the Day which opens with a military snare, sympathetic keyboard, and massed choirs offset by the lyrics delivered by a young child. Likewise the traditional Lithuanian song, Hundreds, where Wakeford’s deadpan vocal contrasts with Jane Howden’s lush female vocal over a backdrop of searing feedback, bass throb and more miltary percussion. Wakeford has long been an admirer of hard-boiled crime fiction and it’s perhaps his interest here that resulted in December’s Song, a track that’s akin to Mickey Spillane meets Portishead. It really does deserves the term folk noir, all late night jazz sounds with Doherty’s sultry vocal. All the elements combine to great effect on the title track, The Hill of Crosses. It opens with Wakeford’s morose vocal over faithful acoustic guitar, but as it reaches the chorus it’s joined by a trumpet lament, shimmering violin, death knell chimes, giving way to a gallow march snare. It’s a beautifully constructed piece singing praises to the strong Lithuanian spirit.
The Hill of Crosses is an excellent and mature piece of work. For those new to Sol this is the perfect introduction, and for others it’s an ideal time to reacquaint yourself with the interests and obsessions of Tony Wakeford.
We roused Tony Wakeford from his sick bed (and a bout of bronchitis) long enough to ask him the following questions.
i) How would you compare The Hill of Crosses with previous Sol Invictus albums? It has been described as a “fair balance between continuity and innovation”, how do you view it? I think its less immediate, more of a grower. I listened to it after a break, and from my sick bed and was happy with it. I think it explores a few new areas.
ii) The line-up of Sol Invictus has been constant for quite some time, how much is Sol Invictus still an outlet for your “interests and obsessions”and how much is it now a democracy? I notice Sally Doherty takes lead vocal on December’s Song. Well I still view it as an outlet. I bring the ingredients to the feast, to use a spurious metaphor. But obviously the others all add much. I am very happy with the present line-up and the releases would be much the poorer without their help. I enjoy working with Matt in the studio. On December’s Song, Sally was just the obvious choice to sing it. I think she did a wonderful job.
iii) I’d describe December’s Song as some sort of jazz folk noir hybrid, is this a fair assessment? The entire feel of the song is at odds with other Sol material. How did this track come about? Well it’s more proof that when your fat and forty you start listening to Jazz. Seriously, I have listened to jazz for many years and Chet Baker is a favourite. I was listening to him a lot when I wrote December’s Song. Although of course I am not comparing myself in any way. For a start I could never afford his smack habit. The “December” vocal melody line popped into my head and I took it from there. It’s a strange interlude on the album but I found it refreshing to do. However, I fear it might lose me some brownie (shirt) points in the ever so talented white nationalist music scene.
iv) The title track, The Hill of Crosses, and Hundreds (a traditional Lithuanian song) are inspired by Lithuania, in what way? How did your interest in Lithuanian culture originate? Well, in a very shallow way, as is the norm. I saw a documentary on how the peasant folk culture had survived the unpleasant attentions of Hitler and Stalin’s wandering bands of tourists and I read up a little on the subject. Coincidentally, after the song had been written I found out that my wife was part Lithuanian. This explains her huge peasant feet and aversion to Cossacks.
v) Matt Howden’s already expressed an interest in remixing the title track, The Hill of Crosses. Remixing isn’t something ordinarily associated with Sol Invictus, will you let him? Never! But when he gives me that lost puppy dog look I am putty in his gnarled northern hands or beer handles as they are known ooop north.
vi) Sol haven’t released vinyl in quite some time yet isn’t The Hill of Crosses getting the vinyl treatment? It is. It seems enough people have nagged for us to take the risk. At least it will spur me into having to buy a turntable. Obviously, a lot will depend on how it does regarding future releases. I decided not to add any extra’s on the vinyl release to the consternation of some. I don’t really think its fair to make people buy it for the sake of an extra track. It should stand or fall as it is. I may think differently when I am crushed under the weight of unsold copies.