While this review is about a new Adam Stafford album, its story begins in May 2018. Stafford has just released his most complex and personal album to date ‘Fire Behind the Curtain’. It was a double instrumental neo-classical influences album about his history with mental health issues. To say it brilliant was an understatement. It was filled with captivating, looped guitars, killer melodies and an underlying tenderness that really got across what it feels like to live with issues of that nature.
However, near the end of 2018 Stafford announced that he was retiring from music with immediate effect. Some of us hoped Stafford just needed a break, others feared this was the end of Falkirk’s finest musical career. Then, out of nowhere, in January 2019 Stafford self-released ‘The Acid Bothy’ tape. This was a collection of experimental, synth-based songs. Rumour has it that Stafford acquired a synth and whilst experimenting with it he made the album. They were less of collection of songs and more the sound of a musician falling in love with his craft again. Since ‘The Acid Bothy’ Stafford has been hinting that he was working on another full-length album. This album is an album that no-one, including Stafford, ever thought we’d hear has been released.
‘Diamond Of A Horse Famine’ is a terse 34-minute affair that shows Stafford in a more reflective, introspective, mood than on previous albums. Usually they are filled with hypnotic maelstroms of looped guitars and effects. ‘Thirty Years of Bad Road’ opens with a sombre riff, underpinned with cascading synths. Lyrically, Stafford is at his abstract, yet xxx. “Waking up with the feeling, that you've been walking, behind yourself” is the first thing we hear him utter. Then “Widespread voices will say that the answer is simple, just devote your whole day, to a life that's more miserable, it’s a striking image that raises more”. This is a slightly darker version of Stafford than we’ve heard before.
As the music progresses the synths become slowly more pronounced in the mix, adding much- needed upbeat melodies. The song ends on a hopeful note “Although that's not to say, I am grateful today. But you don't care either way, I'm still grateful today”. There is a glorious section on ‘History Of Longest Days’ where it sounds like the guitars are being played on an old cassette and its spools keep slipping and we get these wondering off-kilter time signatures. It’s touches like these that really show Stafford’s ability as a guitarist and master of his effect’s pedals.
Despite this more sombre mood, Stafford still has times to drop some hilarious lines, and imagery, into his songs. ‘Erotic Thistle’ contains the xxx “Melt down my death mask, and fashion it into a dildo. Closer you lean-in to whisper, to me the words "ex-nun". On ‘What Kind of Man’ Stafford ponders “What kind of man, is going to want me, with an anus like a Wizard's sleeve?”, “What kind of man, is going to want me. With a face like a wizened leaf?” and “What kind of man is going to want me, With a body like a mutilated tree?” While the song is about what happens when people grow older and have to start again, there is something honestly droll about it.
The title track is four minutes of scratchy slide guitar, vocal samples, and ramshackle riffs. This is a side of Stafford we’ve never seen before. Usually his music is pristine. Here we find him getting dirty. It sounds invigorating. Not just for the change in texture and tone on the album but that he’s still capable of surprising us after over a decade of releasing music. ‘Diamond of a Horse Famine’ sets up the final few songs in a way that makes us refocus our attention, in case Stafford throws another curve ball at us.
‘Diamond Of A Horse Famine’s is a different kind of album to what we are used to. It’s more of a standard singer-songwriter affair. Or as close to that as Stafford will allow. The songs are more immediate than on previous albums too, implying that everything was recorded in a couple of takes, rather than through numerous extended jams.
What ‘Diamond Of A Horse Famine’ shows is that Stafford is back to his best, but he isn’t recreating his previous albums for the sake of it. Nothing Stafford does it for the sake of it. His guitar work is exquisite and his ability to skew his guitar into contorted loops has set him apart from his peers, but he doesn’t employ his box of tricks in the same way that he did on ‘Imaginary Walls Collapse’, ‘Taser Revelations’ or ‘Fire Behind the Curtain'. The solo on ‘Salve’ might be his finest to date. However, the songs are equally as compelling.
This is a brave album that deserves praise for its honesty. Rumour has it that there is another album ready to go. If this is true, then Adam Stafford is a slave to his art and his best may yet to be heard.
Words: Nick Roseblade
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