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The Magnetic North Explores Simon Tong's Transcendentalist Hometown in 'Prospect of Skelmersdale'

Music ReviewSean McHughComment
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Bringing an album into existence is no small task. It’s the ultimate culmination of an artist’s expression and is - in most instances - an unceremoniously intimate endeavor. Maintaining that intimacy while orienting a collection of songs to become a living, breathing embodiment of a concept, memory, or place can be doubly as daunting.

Considering such notions, the prospect of creating a representative musical snapshot that combines the triumvirate of aforementioned sentiments almost inevitably runs the risk of falling flat – either by being too specific for those unfamiliar with the subject, or even worse, by not meeting the expectations of those most familiar. While regarding hypothetical listeners’ individual receptions of a conceptual or representative work is hopefully absent from the creative process, it is exactly what makes conceptual pieces a perilous undertaking.

Nevertheless, such hyperbolic scenarios have yet to reach the awareness of The Magnetic North – a conceptually fueled rock symphony outfit fronted by one of the UK's most ubiquitous guitarist/keyboardists, Simon Tong (blur, Gorillaz, The Verve, The Good, the Bad & the Queen, and Erland & the Carnival) – having created an altogether beguiling and transporting musical rendering of Skelmersdale, England, The Prospect of Skelmersdale.

Originally designated as a site for UK population redistribution in the 1960s, Skelmersdale floundered as a council estate village for almost two decades until the Transcendental Meditation (TM) movement unexpectedly revitalized the town in the early 1980s. The establishment of the town as the official UK capital for the TM movement injected new life in the struggling village, as families devoted to the teachings of the maharishi flocked to the Skelmersdale. Amongst those the zealous masses converging on Skelmersdale was the family of The Magnetic North’s Tong, whose past relation and experiences connected to the town acted as the primary inspirational force behind the LP.

To understand The Prospect of Skelmersdale, one must first understand how The Magnetic North operates and came into being. Tong, along with Erland Cooper (Erland and the Carnival) and Hannah Peel (John Foxx and the Maths), came together in 2012 to create an album based on a dream Cooper had in which an apparition told him to produce a record focusing on his home of Orkney, Scotland. Consisting of pastoral (and symphonic) depictions of features unique to Orkney, the trio released Orkney: Symphony of the Magnetic North, and thus The Magnetic North was born.

Originally intended as a one-off endeavor, The Prospect of Skelmersdale came into consideration - after some third party encouragement - when the trio gathered to determine what their next effort would look like. Somewhat influenced by the locational focus of their first album, it was Peel’s curiosity about Tong’s past life in Skelmersdale that oriented The Magnetic North to zero in on the once promising community.

Prospect of Skelmersdale wastes no time in transporting the listener to a wholly tangible auditory analogue of Skelmersdale, opening with “Jai Guru Dev,” an introductory piece that features choral vocals and audio from the dedication of the TM movement’s “Golden Dome;” establishing an over-arching theme that is simultaneously hopeful and mysterious, along with the TM movement motifs. The Prospect of Skelmersdale operates in a series of musical vignettes that assist in setting the overall tone of the record, with tracks like “Pennylands” and “A Death in the Woods” maintaining the optimistic outlook so many people associated with the community. The compositional prowess of Peel rings true on “Pennylands,” (an actual location in Skelmersdale) as the combined vocals of the trio offer hopeful melodies spread over dubiously tense strings that ebb and flow over driving (yet discerning) percussion.

A perspective shift from its preceding track, “A Death in the Woods” maintains a more realistic assessment of Skelmersdale – a prospective paradise that never fully reaches its presumed potential. The track shifts from a relatively subdued narrative nature into a full-blown electro symphony, as the phrase “We only came by on our way to paradise” echo into the song’s frenzied end, and in turn officially bringing the listener to Skelmersdale. Clean up track, “Sandy Lane,” echoes the same bright sentiments expressed in “A Death in the Woods,” as the combined group vocals narrate the colorful sentiments “You are golden too…” presumably a reference to the Golden temple or some relation to the TM community as light woodwind lead the song out into the middle portion of the album.

Prospect of Skelmersdale consists of individual snapshots varying in their connection to the town itself, with the body of the album providing some of the most vivid depictions. The album’s initial single, “Signs,” features more archival audio promoting the town itself, while the song’s lyrics maintain a loving assertion of wanting what’s best for someone literally waiting for a sign. Follow up tracks “Little Jerusalem” and “Remains of Elmer” begin to diverge from the established tone of hope and optimism shift into more (at least sonically) ominous songs - talks of mediation and outright order and harmony being viewed in dream like lenses, as if to acknowledgment the fledgling prospects of Skelmersdale.

The final third of Prospect of Skelmersdale coincides with the beginning of a figurative (and literal: “Exit”) exit from the town, featuring some of the strongest connections to the TM community. “Exit” brings about a quiet instructional verse that directs an unidentified listener to say goodbye to something or someone (Skelmersdale perhaps?), while maintaining an acknowledgement of some higher purpose. “The Silver Birch” and “Northway Southway” provide more illuminating lyricism and hopeful musical perspectives speaking to future opportunities.

Prospect of Skelmersdale ends in a manner that resembles the albums’ inception – with a serendipitous cover of a George Harrison song, “Run of the Mill.” Harrison was a noted disciple of TM, and according to Tong the cover came about when Peel and her friend Laura Groves were playing the song. Coincidence aside, the rendition is a beautiful song to include on the album, and arguably the perfect track to go out on – with its TM adjacent relation, as well as its exeunt nature.

For as complex and atypical a context the town of Skelmersdale features, The Magnetic North managed to encapsulate aspects of the town that evoke lush pastoral scenes seemingly foreign to a town that has been all but forgotten. Despite Tong’s more than twenty years of being removed from the township, he manages to guide the trio in a particularly deft representation of a unique environment, creating a capsule that is suitable for all to experience both sonically and spiritually. If the expectations for a once auspicious community faded, the outlook is bound to shift thanks in large part to Tong, The Magnetic North, and The Prospect of Skelmersdale.

Read our interview with Simon Tong of The Magnetic North here.