[sic] Magazine

StephenHero – Apparition In The Woods

Sometimes it’s the little things that break you. Visitors to Auschwitz might ready themselves for the sight of the graves or even the gas chambers/incinerators. I doubt it gets much bleaker than that and yet picture this, the museum depicts a series of photographs from the time. One shows a four-year-old girl holding hands with a much younger boy, as they are about to enter the gas chamber. They are smiling.

Patrick Fitzgerald, aka StephenHero, is a master of little touches. A lift here, a chord change there and he’ll break your heart as easily as that little girls smile. He also permeates his music with a wonderful sense of atmosphere and emotion. Apparition In The Woods is, I think, the sixth album in the StephenHero guise. Where 2007’s 57 Stars Of The Air Almanac edged closer to a full band set-up, this one is a somber, piano-driven affair. Yes, the man that once urged, “sharpen your stunted tusk” (on Elephantine) now tickles the ivories.

I used to have a hard time deciding whether my favorite StephenHero track was ‘The Nobel Prize Is Mine’ or ‘58th Star’. That position is now cemented by ‘I Will Sleep’, which is far and away one of the best tracks of the past year. This guy really deserves far more attention. Fitzgerald must have a shout at the UK’s most underrated songwriter. You can’t even call these songs. These are compositions. Some compare him to Morrissey. I would say okay, maybe, if we take one of Morrissey’s greatest songs, ‘Hold on to your friends’, filter it through sepia, add a dash of Broadway and the small matter of real feelings. No for me Fitzgerald bares better comparison to Luke Haines, Neil Hannon or even Sondheim. There is drama in here. ‘Cinematic’ is overused to the verge of cliché in reviewing. Yet many of the pieces on Apparition qualify. It would have to be art house cinematic though. The theatre might offer more avenues for these weighty, adult subjects. Popcorn? Forget it.

With Apparition.. it seems StephenHero is drawing more and more upon biography and literature for inspiration and is less reliant on his own personal experiences. It’s a moot observation in any case as the same themes resonate through the new material. And yet I detect a nuance. Once intolerant of intolerance, Fitzgerald now sounds weary, beaten down by the ignorance and bigotry he has witnessed. He’s still prepared to make his stand but maybe some of the fight has gone?

The second most gorgeous, lump-in-throat moment here takes us back to Auschwitz. ‘The snow that would not melt’ tells that particular WWII horror story from the perspective of the man who drove the trains containing the Jews and the other minorities who fell victim to the death camps. It’s a very clever study of the varying degrees of guilt and cowardice. He, after all, only delivers his cargo on schedule. What will happen afterwards is not his affair. Was it ignorance, cowardice or blind human terror that made him comply? What would you have done? What could anybody have done?
Those trains ran for two and a half years as the Nazis committed fully to the ‘Jewish Solution’. Towards the end of the war the incinerators were so overworked that vast quantities of human ashes fell in neighbouring villages, puzzling inhabitants who didn’t expect snow out of season. Snow, of course, which wouldn’t melt.

Patrick Fitzgerald has outpaced his critics. He has long since stepped out from behind that wall of guitars, Kitchens Of Distinction, sound to reveal a truly gifted composer. Maybe now, after six StephenHero records, those that still ‘don’t get it’ could do the same. Instead of approaching his current work from the point of view of ‘missing’ Kitchens, guitars and drums, they should focus on what is actually present. Namely wonderful, evocative pieces, masterfully played and as beautifully sung as ever. (That husky, dried parchment voice….ahhh, superb.) I suspect he has little idea how good he really is. Or how much we still need him because the fight goes on. The monsters haven’t gone away as witnessed by last years, Far Right plot to steal and sell the infamous, Auschwitz, “Work makes you free” sign. 65 years on, have we learned nothing?



57 Stars Of The Air Almanac

Patrick Fitzgerald interview