[sic] Magazine

The Sea Nymphs – On The Dry Land

Happy New Year everybody! I’m back with a look at an exciting new release by a band that many across the internet have been enamored with: The Sea Nymphs. This new album, On The Dry Land, was a revelation that few saw coming and the first signs of life from the Cardiacs realm in ages.

Who are Cardiacs and what do they do? Cardiacs is a group of English lunatics that play the daftest (and bestest) form of music ever invented: pronk. I take that back: leader Tim Smith hates the term, and I don’t blame him. It sounds like someone clearing their throat just before puking. But some fans use it anyway because it best describes the basics of their sound: progressive rock played at punk tempo.

It’s not unusual for an average four minute Cardiacs song to feature no more than three time signature changes, a dozen riffs and counter-melodies on guitar, bass, keyboard, and sax to whizz across the mix, and key changes all over the place just for fun. Counter this with Smith’s absurdist lyrics wailed in a high British shout and you have a style you either love or hate.

My heart has fallen heavily for these mad men and women. While Smith is the primary creative force and (along with his bass-playing brother, the long-suffering Jim), the only consistent member. However each member contributes vastly to the sound of the band. Two of the most important were his sax-playing (then) wife Sarah Smith and keyboardist William D. Drake.

These three had a unique chemistry as musicians that I feel is best exemplified in their side project, the aforementioned Sea Nymphs. Built primarily around Smith’s acoustic guitar and keyboard playing, Drake’s virtuoso keyboard skills, Sarah’s sax playing, and all three singing, it is an ethereal sort of prog folk that has no real beginning or end.

Their first album together Mr. And Mrs. Smith and Mr. Drake has a lo-fi sounds that makes it feel like a long-lost artifact. Their official debut, The Sea Nymphs, has a dense and more ‘well-produced’ sound and a baffling collection of diverse sounds. While keeping many of the trademark Cardiacs touches, they were gentler than a wind from the east, blowing incense in my brain.

As good as these two albums were, though, (and Sarah Smith says they remain her favorite band ever) I am most spellbound by this latest offering, a collection of material recorded around the same time as their last album and finally touched up and finished by Smith and company. Why was it delayed for so long and why hasn’t any material come from the once so incredibly prolific Smith lately?

In the last 2000s, Smith was been fallen by a series of nasty heart attacks and strokes that have left him unable to speak or walk. However he is still as mentally sharp and witty as ever. He enthusiastically attends many concerts and communicates via a special keyboard. And he remains a quirky and welcoming presence: his Facebook account is self-run and accepts all fan requests.

Early in 2016, Smith had recovered enough physical strength to go to the studio and put the ‘eyebrows’ on this latest offering. With his keen ear and musical mind, Sarah and William Drake were able to finish this album and, if it ends up being the last work he finished (though I still hold out for the completion of the lost Cardiacs album, LSD), he went out on a high note.

Written by Smith and Drake, this album shares a similar sound and style with the previous album. But the songs are, if it’s possible, even better. It’s hard to describe the sound of an average Sea Nymphs track. It is usually built around Smith’s delicate acoustic guitar playing gentle (but complex) chords and melodies and intoning mysterious lyrics. Over top of this, Drake and Smith layer various keyboards and dense sound effects.

The vocals vary between a gentler whine from Smith (quite unlike his usual manic Cardiacs tone), the deep and raspy ‘every man’ voice of Drake, and Sarah’s soft and wispy voice. She is what really gives this project its mysterious aspect and she has more vocals here than on past albums. Comparisons to Bilinda Butcher and Liz Frazer are appropriate here: her voice is similar in its haunting simultaneous presence and lack of presence. Those who know shoegaze know the vocal style I mean.

She is also the instrumental wild card here, much as she was in Cardiacs. Her saxophone playing typically serves as the main instrumental hook in each song. And while her chops are clearly not that of a Coltrane, they don’t need to be: she’s very skilled at intoning Smith and Drake’s melodies with the appropriate drama, wonder, and depth that they deserve. So while she writes nothing, she is just as crucial an element to the album’s sound.

Describing the individual songs would ruin the fun of experiencing them yourself. Expect (and receive) gentle piano-led songs with a gruff Bill Drake barking his way through. Anticipate acoustic guitar tunes that shift through sections and keys as recklessly as Cardiacs, but at a slower and easier-to-grasp tempo. Hear Sarah huff and puff on her sax to create not only startlingly beautiful melodic moments, but Van Der Graaf-quality sax riffs.

One of the best albums of the year for my tired ears and mind. With Donald Trump ascending to the throne in a few weeks, soothing sounds like this can keep us all content and pleasantly distracted. Can be purchased at the official site along with other Cardiacs gear, including CDs, records etc. Found via the link below.

Cardiacs Official Webpage