“Tonight’s gig is going to be quite emotional, but also positive with lots to discover,” promises Hannah Peel at the start. True to her word, it ends with a standing ovation after a sing-along ‘Tainted Love’, played on a music box.
Composer, instrumentalist, music-box maker and singer Peel’s second album, ‘Awake But Always Dreaming’, investigates the creation of memories and their destruction through dementia.
The musician’s grandmother was central to the record’s development over four or five years. The family sang to her one Christmas. “She couldn’t remember us, or her life, but when we started singing Christmas carols, she sang along. At that point, I decided this album had to come out.”
Before the encore, Peel reveals that her family have all unexpectedly arrived from Ireland, so she’ll attempt a live debut of the experimental ‘Conversations’, blending half-recalled phrases on tape, electric piano and lyrics that are central to her theme: “When I awake, don’t recall your name my only friend, Memory, memory, Where did it go?”
Peel teamed up with visual and sound artists to launch the album at Shoreditch’s St Leonard’s church in support of Alzheimer’s Research UK.
Stephen Mallinder, of industrial-electro group Wrangler and previously from the legendary Cabaret Voltaire, DJs while shapes are projected onto a screen. Film makers Lavinia Greenlaw (‘The Sea Is An Edge And An Ending’) and Shelly Love (the animated ‘Scratch’) introduce their work.
Christopher Ecclestone reads poems by Will Burns and Robin Robertson. “This whole evening is about hope,” says Ecclestone, who is here because of his late father, who had Alzheimer’s.
Behind Peel, visuals by Daniel Conway featuring a memory film by Emmaalouise Smith show family wedding shots and outings. The set starts quietly with ‘All That Matters’, until Daisy Palmer joins in with booming drums. “All that matters is you’re with me” is sung to a mainly poppy and optimistic beat, and features Peel’s first violin break of the night, but ends with measured synths and a lingering heartbeat. A slower pulse propels the delicate ‘Silk Road’ from Peel’s 2014 EP ‘Fabricstate’. ‘Don’t Take It Out On Me’ is hypnotically catchy and troubling: “My head is made of stone, but my heart breaks easily, don’t take it out on me.”
The mood deepens with the ambient-industrial ‘Awake But Always Dreaming’, as Peel’s pitch-perfect voice hovers over clackety percussion, taped sounds and muttering voices, repeating just four lines of text. Fragmented notes morph into a danceable beat from Palmer, waves of percussion, big synth chords and violin. Peel says she hopes there haven’t been too many tears. ‘Tenderly’ follows, with plangent piano and disjointed percussion.
‘Standing On The Roof Of The World’ repeats the lyric “awake but always dreaming”, as if memory is playing tricks on us, while synth drives the tune onwards. ‘Hope Lasts’ is more poppy, Palmer grinning at Peel as the tune reminds us that tonight is all about positivity. The entrancing ’Cars In The Garden’ features another turn for Peel’s music box and a guest appearance on vocals from her bandmate in The Magnetic North and the album’s co-producer, Erland Cooper. The song is by Paul Buchanan, formerly of The Blue Nile, but Peel makes it her own. The plaintive ‘Invisible City’ alludes to one of the inspirations behind ‘Awake but Always Dreaming’, the 1972 novel by Italo Calvino, a psychogeographic imaginary memoir.
The set climaxes with ‘Foreverest’ (or “for ever rest”), a monster of a track, Peel rocking as she plays her Nord Stage EX. She makes it sound like raging electric guitars as Palmer crashes the cymbals. Palmer then produces ticking time-bomb percussion as Peel turns to the violin, which wails as the beat disintegrates. This complex, captivating symphony of a song careers along for the best part of 10 minutes. The sound is dark, orchestral and rich, contrasting with the music box charm of the encore’s ‘Tainted Love’. From despair to hope and joy, in just a few minutes. That’s the message.