A review of Ian Arkley’s second solo album via poetic journeys on the London Underground

ArkleyII_COVERIan Arkley’s second solo album two is compellingly converse. Frequently touching on fiercely hunting, it equally remains subtle throughout. two picks up where one left of with bells on thanks to the addition of a dulcimer, lyre and pitched down acoustic guitar for bass. Mastering and layout are by Michael Shaffer of label Opa Loka Records, on which two is released; beyond that, Ian is responsible for all aspects including photographs and artwork.

Off the bat is a sense of going beneath ground: down through a long tunnel into a cavernous network. By the finish of the first listen, two had taken me to a specific place and time: the London Underground at the end of the last century.

Ian not only had a long career driving freight trains, he currently has a fully operational miniature steam railway, the engines big enough to ride and pull carriages with a couple of real people passengers around the fair amount of track laid at his humble abode where two was recorded.

Photo 1Included in the release package is: ‘two is a remarkable outpouring of organic sound and dreams. Recorded completely acoustically in Arfryn, southwest Wales, over the final, winter months of 2021, two is steeped in the natural beauty, the history and folk lore of the region where it was brought to life. It’s medieval, it’s pagan, it’s shamanistic, magical and ambient; it draws from folk, neo-folk and tribal sounds and rhythms; it captures the pulse of the earth and the heartbeat of nature.’

There’s nothing to suggest Ian intended making an album centred on the rhythm of trains, never mind the London Underground. Something of that career and passion, though, seems to have sprung forth from deep in the earth of Arkley.

At least, with two’s echoic elements and frequently touched sense of being within or beneath, it has for me; someone who at one point in the 1990s would enter and exit Kennington Tube station around eighteen times a week.

Underground trains move at a different pace to those above: the average speed over ground around 65 mph; the Tube average is around 23 mph, while its slowest Line (Circle) drops to 14 mph.

My memory is nothing like a stereotypical clickety-clack, but conversely a swagger, loose without ever losing its beat, thanks in no small part to the sound of carriages further up and down the track playing their reverberating part in what is heard in the carriage one occupies. Meditative and lulling, underpinned with a purpose for where it goes that doesn’t suffer any anxiety in getting there (the latter part often having the opposite impact on a traveller if in a rush).

0020651586_10The idea for what follows came during the first listen; and in developing, it often felt two had been created for the purpose. It wasn’t; instead two’s limited use of vocals and an abundance of rich sounds and melodies present the perfect opportunity for a listener to get lost in the music and create a narrative.

For me it led to what might be called poetry; a verse for each track to tell a story from two perspectives, though not a back and forth: the sound of each song determined which side it represented; until the final track, where there’s a face off for the conclusion.

For that conclusion I sent Ian a message with no context beyond asking if the glass was half full or empty, unbeknown to him, to decide the final outcome.

The setting:

The last time I used the Underground was 2011 (going to see Ulver). At that time many of the platforms had screens to stop people being pushed/jumping onto the tracks. Whereas the Tube in my mind’s eye is one of ticket machines still feeling relatively new, never mind ticket barriers.

I remember coming out at Kennington numerous times thinking no one was checking tickets, almost throwing mine in a bin, only to see the staff member with that job leaning against the entrance so they could have a smoke. With the installation of an automatic ticket barrier came almost non existent staff, a gang hanging round the entrance at night to hassle people coming out and London getting a little bit more unbearable for it.

Some things, though, don’t change. Opened in 1890, Kennington, like many stations of the era, had an entry/exit staircase installed as an alternative to elevators. The exact layout of the stairs varies station to station; likewise many have lovely tiling of a unique design too. Whereas, while Kennington does have tiling in places, the stairs feel and look more like something that belongs on a warship or submarine.

My thanks to Brian Howe for kindly allowing me to use the incredible below image taken 2021:

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Kennington images: the green mini cathedral-like dome was built to house the workings of the original elevators. There was a time when the arched walls on the side of the track were bare of adverts and looked mouldering. Another image from Brian also taken 2011 shows a segment of the station looking quite spick-and-span, suggesting that more recently changes have been positive.

(My thanks to all of the following for making their images available to use: exterior TheFrog001; platform left Sunil060902; platform right Andrew Bowden; train in tunnel Oast House Archive; platform clock Secretlondon; side view of moving train Brian Howe)

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1: Raven Valley (variation 1: Birth)

.
she looks out the window
night in full flow
streets emptying
under orange glow
draws curtains
descends into darkness
she’s going out
but fears the consequence
of being born from the room

2: The Imprint in Time

.
He is in the entrance of Kennington station
The elevator stands with doors open
Bulb flickering
He doesn’t like the look of that
Takes the stairs instead
The tight spiralling stairs
With mighty metal walls
Bolts of Zeus
That in rush hour
Has two squeezed lines
Going different directions
But now is empty
Hollow
Steps starting to blur into one
Beckoning him to fall
As sounds rise up from below
Getting louder the deeper he goes
Deep moans as trains
Push out of the arched shaped tunnels
Then pull back with a gasp
Far into a black gaping mouth again
Carriages moving over track
Somewhere down in the distance
Like drums drawing him on 
Ghostly murmurings foreboding
An announcement bouncing from antique tiling
Something about delays
And all the progress being made
To rectify them

3: Outage

.
headlights move across the closed curtains
pushing like the bow of a boat
trying to break through the edge of mist
that won’t be bent
the phone rings
but she doesn’t answer
instead gets up and leaves

4: Der Fund

.
the carriage she sits in
at least for now
is above ground
the outside night sky
enough for the light inside
to reflect her image back
from the window opposite
nothing like when in a tunnel
just half the usual ghost today
haunted almost to extinction
she feels like it too
looks away
up to the poetry
but has read that one
on another Line before
so looks through the mirror on the wall
onto the blocks of flats
mean outward attitudes
to the lives within
then that verge
with all the back walls
of houses at its top
and trees growing
from the bank
like they don’t know
where they’re going
all sorts of angles
pulled this way and that
by all the trains passing
branches stretching misshapen
a bit like the Underground map
she hasn’t been this way for a while
one year to be exact
but she’s been enough before
that when everything
suddenly jumps to black
she isn’t surprised in the slightest
no
she recognised the tree
just before it happens
still
it didn’t stop the seeing
of her refection again
only now so much clearer
like a portrait from all those times
she previously took the route
when all was glorious and good
appropriate to find it here now
deep beneath soil
until it’s gone in a flash
as the train enters
the bright of a station

5: Times of Innocence

.
the doors open
more people get on than off
don’t care too much about
those going the other way
she just stares at the floor
thinking of another time and place
a person
their eyes
a face
his
hand in hand
walking by the Thames
after drinks and dinner
sun setting
hot and orange like lava
on the dirty brown water
like the time he sat on her
orange flavour Fry’s chocolate bar
and didn’t know it was there
for hours    
doors close on
times of innocence
the train moves off
she remembers being
sat here before
wrapped in anticipation
counting the seconds
knowing by heart
the next station
is two minutes duration

6: Raven Valley (variation 2: Death)

.
At Kennington
Voices echo down the corridors
Criss-crossing and leading to different
Platforms
But when he reaches his
There’s only one other on it
Sat right down at the end
Wearing a hooded robe
Monk-like thing
Mumbling by the looks of
Not loud enough to have been
The voices heard
Not now anyway
And no surprise either
London
Where there’s all kinds of
New romantics and punks
Besides he doesn’t have time
To care about signs from above
It’s the no sign of a train
He’s worried about
It could be the death of her

7: Rhyddid

.
she stands on another platform now
staring down at the tracks
two thick lines
crossed by wood below
the opposing wall feeling so close
from its arching over
like bending from the weight above
she is about to do something
monumental
but for the moment is distracted
by the undeniable movement
of a long tail
thick and grimy pink
scurrying next to a strip
of metal
a mouse would have meant nothing
but a rat . . .
makes her wonder
if she’s doing the right thing
as the train comes rushing in
from the other end
she still has the freedom
to turn back

8: Chrysalis

.
There are trains
Constantly heard
Coming and going
Playing their ghostly game
Of cat and mouse with Anemoi
While for him nothing but hope
There will soon be light
At the end of the tunnel
Indication
There does a train come
But until then
Time eddies on
And then one does
Two lights wide apart
Appearing like stars
Bright and below
A dull constellation
Only for the train to stop
With a sigh
Mournfully in its burrow
Arched for
Melancholy disposition
In the shadows peeping
An actor with stage fright
Too shy to appear
Despite the lack
Of audience waiting
With no alternative
But a performance
The name of the play:
Metal Caterpillar Emerging from Chrysalis

9: When Once

.
He stares at the unmoving stars
Cursing their blank inaction
Mesmerised like he can
Will them towards him
Useless as beckoning a fed cat
Without treats or similar morsel
He can’t be late
He can’t
He wanted to be early
Even if she didn’t show
He’d know he had been
For the first time
No chance of that now
When once
Fifteen minutes was standard
Maybe half hour
Sometimes a bit more
She wasn’t exactly best pleased
Often far from it
But she always took it well
When he got her with good humour
Didn’t go on
And on
And on
Like the wait for the train
When he knows for certain
She won’t hang around this time
If she’s even there to begin with

10 From Forest From Sea

.
mind the gap
a stern voice says
for the second time
she doesn’t need telling
can do nothing else
as she moves station to station
her mind travels
from forest to sea
thoughts of all that was done
in moments of celebration
for that she cherished above all else
walks in woods out in the country
or the break of a wave on a foreign holiday
alternating family Christmases
mixing friends at BBQs
films seen for the first time
now favourite restaurants discovered together
even in London the Grey
nothing could dampen
how much she adored him
mind the gap
another station reached
another platform breached
though not by her
she could still turn back
opportunities aplenty
but in for a penny
the rhythm of the train
is like destiny
with her in its grip

11: King

.
The squeal of brakes
Signals the train is moving
Up to the platform
Finally
High pitched all the way
He steps on
The carriage empty
Sits and says a prayer
To a God never really believed in
That the doors shut abruptly
And movement begins with His speed
For time chimes forlornly
The wish is granted
Platform ever quicker moving
But the monk is still there
Sitting
Staring with a grin
That passes in a blur
Reminds him of the time
He reigned like a king
Whatever he said went
No matter where it was to go
Back then
When travelling beneath
The darkly rushing Thames
His reflection in the glass
Showed him with a halo
Unable to do wrong
Except apparently he could
An angel fallen
Like that from pigeons
On Trafalgar Square
It had been a mistake
And that’s why
He could never hope to explain it
Everything he’d ever wanted
Thrown away for a bit of . . .
What on Earth had he been thinking
Sounded such a cliché for defence
Which is perhaps why
The judge hadn’t bought it
Handed down a year in solitude instead
And now the Fates howl
For having tried to steal
His one chance at redemption
At the first fence

12: Raven Valley (variation 3: Sleep)

.
heart heavy as rock
dark as her raven black hair
she enters the pub
where they first met
both some way from usual
necks of the woods
him a mate’s birthday
her a hen do
both on pub crawls
then his party left suddenly
and all he had time for
same time next week?
she’d thought him cute
genuine
so much so
that in seven days
she dared to show up
alone and
stupid!
of course he wasn’t there
for a flippant off the cuff remark
so she turned to walk out
only to find
him walking in behind her
grin for being
fashionably later than she
when her only motive
not being stood alone
in a pub full of blokes
it becoming a running joke
that fast ran out of steam
for her
he continued with the catchphrase
better late than never
like he’d been crowned King Hilarious
but she bore it
for while it pricked her more than once
and deeply when it did
it was the only thorn
when in all the other ways
he treated her as Queen
least that’s the way it seemed
for then it wasn’t
stitching of her world
suddenly unravelling
and she
was beyond devastated
at the destruction of Venus
while he begged and begged forgiveness
instead she let rip with everything
like her hatred of his lateness
a big surprise to him
but still just a tip on the mountain
of the monumental
mistake he’d made
least that’s what he called it
even though it had a name
she wanted to believe
truly
so she said
twelve months of absolutely
no contact
not even life or death emergency
and if after that
he could meet her
in the place they’d first met
look her in the eye
say he’d been faithful in the meantime
and she’d know
for his eyes gave him away the last
then forgiveness and likewise he would find
they’d be two again
a couple
then she left
to the sound of his assurance
he wouldn’t be late
but early

He’s running between platforms
A change of lines
Dodging and sliding by people
Trying to take the quickest side
Of any stairs
Hates this never-ending labyrinth
Of a station
With the metal pipes on walls
Panics
Thinks maybe he’s gone wrong
With the horror of it all
Remembers the time
Getting on the Circle Line
At Embankment by accident
She took it in her stride
He was always late
And then when it happened
She just stopped walking
Hated his tardiness
Always had
And here he was
Running and unsure
Cursed by the Northern Line

had she really meant it
she didn’t really know
said as a test for sure
but there and then
more than anything
to get the space she wanted
see if he could at least
give something so
fundamentally hers
show himself the good guy
she always thought he was
he’d promised over and over
it wouldn’t happen again
said some sort of probation better
than punishing both of them
suggestions like that
just cementing her resolve
that set with the realisation
she was likely out of sight
departed from his mind
before an ounce of her hurt
had started to subside
when he didn’t do as expected
and start calling all hours of the night
drunk and pathetic
sometimes demanding
she could hardly ring to check
had to stand by that said in anger
stupid!
should’ve just let go
to turn up meant the date would never be forgotten
as the time she’d laid out her great desperation
driven by
what if she didn’t and he did
what of what would be lost then
she might not be able to forgive
herself for not knowing
while she certainly won’t
for sitting here now
dullest night of the week
pub all but empty
him not showing
where all their first dates had been
like moving them somewhere else
might burst the bubble
destroy the magic
despite the distance
from where either lived
they’d made a point
of coming back monthly
to never forget their
unlikely first meeting
now she sits alone with
a halfway drunk pint of lager
the memory of his begging and promises
hollow like the tunnels beneath her
she looks at her watch
it’s been over an hour and a half
he was never this late at his worst
the pint is her third
why the Hell not
she has to live with
turning up tonight forever
looks at the liquid gold
wondering
is the glass half full
or half empty
if the first then stay
get another drink
maybe a shot with it
and risk the cold light of morning
adding a whole other layer
of desperate to the wait
while the latter get up
leave that very instant
retain some dignity
by just walking out
an hour and a half later
than she should’ve
finds consolation in
the thought of doing something
to put a line under it all
like they once did
with the trains
that rumble below
going in and out of the station
just up the street
it comes through the floor
into the heavy legs of the tall
table and stool she sits on
a vibration reaching her
there to be felt
but the buzz of the Capital
is like part of the furniture
rarely noticed
she could leave by a different door
take a bus home
no a taxi
forget the cost
if she’s not getting a shot
she’s at least calling them

He runs like Hermes
In mid-priced trainers
Two steps at a time
Up the escalator
Shouting out
Excuse me
All the way
Onto the street
Road thick with traffic
Pounds pavement to pub
Just up on the corner
Bursts in expecting
But what
Breathless he’s staring
A couple in the corner
Come from the office
Colleagues at work
Though now canoodling
A bloke alone
Just gazing ahead
And a tall table
Legs made of lead
Recently used by two steady drinkers
And a lightweight
If the three glasses on top
Are to be gone by
He’d kept his side of the bargain
Kept it like the Crown Jewels
To show how much she meant
For what is a year to a lifetime
Of being happy and content
But now she’ll never know
If she’d even been here
On this night at all

she’d decided
fuck it, why wait
to finish half a pint
had got down from her
high stall at the table
went straight to the bar
got her shot there and then
plus one for him
to drink in his absence
au revoir
adios
auf Wiedersehen
what a stupid fool I’ve been
!
she’ll down the lager
then neck ‘em n’ leave
this moment she’s been stuck in
for the last fifty-two weeks
shots in hand she turns from the bar
only to see him stood at the door
not really sure she is believing
the look on his face
pure fear and panic
regret and remorse
sorrow in bounds
not the arrogant swagger
he used to roll in with

Long before there was sleep
tunnels beneath waxed empty
Longing for the motion
of trains again

* * * * *

My sincere thanks to Ian Arkley and Opa Loka records for the opportunity to review this quite unique, and now extremely personal to me, album.

Links:

Thanks for reading 🙂

N. P. Ryan

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