White Robot are an alternative folk duo, consisting of songwriter/guitarist Asher Cochlain and singer Amanda Joy. Intriguingly, despite their artistic collaboration they have never actually met, making it a creative endeavour reflective of the post-Internet era, culturally. Their music is essentially alt. folk/dark folk, first bringing to mind artists like Laura Marling, Gillian Welch, Lisa Hannigan and Ani DeFranco due to Amanda Joy’s crystalline lead vocals, with a Nick Drake influence in the picked acoustic guitar playing and melancholic songwriting style of Asher Cochlain.
The Belligerent North Star consists of nine tracks, starting with the folk blues of Dark House. The intricate acoustic guitar work of Cochlain immediately captures the ear, before Amanda Joy’s evocative voice soon weaves its spell on the listener. From its first lines there is a darkly poetic quality to the words that fits the music perfectly: “In this house they decease, they are numb….”. Despite the song’s brevity, the haunting title hook makes an instant impression and sticks fast in the mind: “There’s freedom in the dark house….”. It has an ironic poignancy that made me think of Nick Drake’s Fruit Tree.
The second track Clap Hands will be familiar to fans of the Tom Waits album Rain Dogs, though this is not so much a cover version as a complete reinterpretation. Keeping the lyrics and vocal melody the same, Cochlain re-harmonizes the music which breathes new life into the song, along with the very inventive arrangement (including 12 string guitar and piano) and modern production style. Another great vocal from Amanda here.
Paranoid Rose is a hymnal, beautiful folk ballad with haunting Fleet Foxes-style stacked vocal harmonies. It creates a dreamlike, mystical ambience with a slightly sinister undertow. This dark but spiritual vibe continues with Broke His Body With A Rope, which features male lead vocals courtesy of Cole Am and features powerful lines: “Broke his bones but they couldn’t break his soul, he knew there was something more in store….”.
Banshee and a Farm Boy is a lovely duet, featuring vocals from both Cole and Amanda. Like all the songs, it is exquisitely crafted and arranged with some fine piano work from Bogaert Frederic, which works in perfect tandem with Cochlain’s finger-picked acoustic guitar.
The following James is perhaps the most immediate song on the album, starting with a vocal refrain of “James Earl Jones” (perhaps known best as the voice of Darth Vader) then goes into a wild jazz section, the kind of random mid track interlude that made me think of Beck’s Odelay album. Amanda’s vocals are joined by some low-octave male vocals in places, which creates an interesting contrast.
Go Go Heartless Horse is a brief instrumental that acts as a fine showcase for Cochlain’s superb guitar playing, and there’s plenty more of that on the last ‘proper’ song on the album, Flame of Grey. It features a particularly enchanting lead vocal, reminiscent of Kate Bush at her most ethereal and otherworldly, and the whole song has a transcendent quality. The final track All Thorns Are Brothers is rather a curveball, twenty seconds of acoustic guitar, electronic noises and vocal samples which gives a satisfyingly unpredictable ending to the album.
Overall, this is a highly accomplished work from an inspired artistic collaboration that brings traditional folk into the modern era. The combination of Asher Cochlain’s songwriting and guitar skills with Amanda Joy’s beatific voice makes for many moments of musical beauty. This album stands alongside the best in this genre and deserves to be heard by many.
VERDICT = 9 out of 10