The third solo album from Hannah Peel virtually drops vocals in an unlikely and singular combination of analogue synthesizers and a full brass band. ‘Mary Casio: Journey to Cassiopeia’ is a beautifully eccentric piece — a seven movement odyssey that introduces as Peel’s alter ego an obscure, elderly female electronic music pioneer and stargazer from Barnsley, South Yorkshire, who apparently fulfils her dream of setting off for the distant constellation of Cassiopeia.
Whether the journey is real or fanciful, successful or a failure ending in death is left to the listener’s imagination and mind’s eye. Peel is struck by comparisons of brain neurons with galaxies. Older women and the mysterious workings of the human cerebrum figure highly in her work. ‘Mary Casio’ comes exactly a year after ‘Awake But Always Dreaming’, an emotionally powerful LP that took four or five years to gel as the composer, instrumentalist and singer sought to explore the destruction of memory through dementia — inspired by her grandmother’s later years. Her new album uses layers of synths, found sounds, the emotive power of a 29-piece brass band, and Peel’s lovely voice (employed as if it were another instrument) to create a sonic voyage through outer space.
The combination of neo-classical composition and synths recalls a few electronic pioneers, such as Isao Tomita whose Moog-based versions of pieces by Debussy, Mussorgsky and — most pertinently — Holst’s ‘The Planets’ culminated in his ‘Symphony Ihatov’. Vangelis is another name from electronic music’s past who comes to mind, along with Delia Derbyshire, the groundbreaking BBC Radiophonics Workshop composer who arranged the ‘Doctor Who’ theme tune. On the brass band side, ‘Mary Casio’ brings back memories of the mournful arrangement of Dvorak’s ‘New World Symphony’ for the classic 1973 Hovis TV advert, directed by science fiction guru Ridley Scott (‘Blade Runner’, ‘Alien’, ‘The Martian’).
There may be precursors to Peel’s work, with oddly coincidental space references, but ‘Mary Casio’ is a one off. Peel lets her found sound/synth composition grow for several minutes during the first movement, ‘Goodbye Earth’, before the big brass backs her up. Without being at all corny, the piece has a “blast off” moment, and a reflective ending as the planet’s atmosphere is left behind, leaving the vastness of the universe ahead. ‘Sunrise Through The Dusty Nebula’ continues to describe the awe and majesty of space.
The movements that follow build in wonder and tension. Broken-up voice comms hint at impending peril in ‘Andromeda 31’ while the gentle repeated motifs of ‘Life Is On The Horizon’ poignantly suggest that Mary could be lost in space. Peel may be intimating that she has drifted towards a black hole and the event horizon.
In concert, Peel’s band is called ‘Tubular Brass’, but they could well be dubbed “tubular bass” after the way she brings the the low end to life, focusing on the rich and melancholy tuba, euphonium and trombone. She trained as a trombone player before embracing synths. And the deeply reverberating low registers of her synthesizers match the brass’s tenor and bass. ‘Mary Casio’ is best played loud, really loud, with the bass turned up to 11. The insistent ‘Archid Orange Dwarf’ has the feel of PJ Harvey’s recent live arrangements for sax and percussion.
Huge chords blast out at the start of ‘The Planet Of Past Souls’ — synth and brass reinforcing each other’s emotional impact — until Peel’s trademark musical box and gorgeous but wordless voice intervene, leading into a beautiful and moving passage and the album’s finale or coda. This is a crackly 78rpm recording of a choirboy treble solo in homage to Peel’s own family’s musical story — her grandfather sang the piece in Manchester Cathedral in 1928. The mournful notes bring Mary back to earth and humanity; she may be gone, but she’s not forgotten.
‘Mary Casio: Journey to Cassiopeia’ is released on 22 September via My Own Pleasure
Portrait pics: Rebel and Romance Boudoir Photography/Live pics: Ian Bourne
‘Mary Casio: Journey to Cassiopeia’ track list:
1 ‘Goodbye Earth’
2 ‘Sunrise Through The Dusty Nebula’
3 ‘Deep Space Cluster’
4 ‘Andromeda M31’
5 ‘Life Is On The Horizon’
6 ‘Archid Orange Dwarf’
7 ‘The Planet Of Passed Souls’