At another time, noise island– the absorbing and ever-patient new album from amorphous British band Modern Nature – could have been a major label debut. After all, the mastermind of the project, Jack Cooper, sports the kind of impressive resume that lends itself to upward mobility, from his stint in two buzzy rock bands to his more recent stint in the alluring and elliptical Ultimate Painting. Modern Nature debut album, 2019 How to livealso seemed poised for a breakthrough, with its orchestral angularity suggesting a new bright spot along the line from Talk Talk to Radiohead.
The initial release of noise island late last year also had the energy of a mid-90s major label: ahead of its digital release at the end of January, the album saw the light of day as a lavishly illustrated box set containing an instrumental album dubbed alternative island of silence (both LPs were pressed on recycled vinyl), along with a sticker sheet and a dense book containing answers to its 10 tracks from popular science scribe Merlin Sheldrake and cultural critic Richard King. It has the seriousness of a profound subject, of a major production. You can imagine J. Spaceman – for an alt-rock moment, the prince of such a daring show – nodding approvingly at the ambition.
noise island, however, is not a testament to past bloated budgets, but to Cooper’s vision, which quickly established itself as the leader of a band whose lineup changes with each project. (Ultimate Painting, he lamented, was too easy, as he only wrote half the songs.) It’s the best, most cohesive album of his career, the product of an expanded thematic scope. and a refined instrumental approach. These pieces unfold like a fantastical hybrid of sleek folk-rock and understated free-jazz, framed by Cooper but brought to life by an ad hoc wrecking crew of improvisers that includes legendary circular-breathing powerhouse Evan Parker and violist textured and imaginative Alison Cotton.
As a lyricist and singer, Cooper creates a fragmented, prismatic microcosm of our own world, so that we can contemplate our crises – environmental devastation, relentless racism, caustic religion – with critical perspective. Beautiful but sad, strange but tender, noise island feels like a sublime stopover between Ok Computer and Child Aor between eccentric British folk of the early 70s and austere Chicago post-rock of the 90s. His songs are subtly stuffed, bursting with layers of luxurious melodies and imaginative variations.
Cooper was revisiting Storm– one of Shakespeare’s last plays and a vast synthesis of many of his favorite themes – when he encountered a new mantra: “Do not be afraid. The island is full of sounds”, which he scribbled on the walls of his studio. Cooper also borrowed Storm, in which a gust of wind throws a ship on an unknown and distant island. What would we see of ourselves with this ‘new start’ on this ‘sacred island’, he asks above the ascending horns and strings on ‘Dunes’, if we had the chance? His crew survives the opening instrumental, “Tempest,” where Parker’s floating saxophone captures the anxiety of deadly terror while the rest of the band delivers a preemptive dirge. They begin again with “a brave new morning”.