Album Review: Dominic Valvona




Raf And O ‘The Space Between Nothing And Desire’
(Telephone Records) 31st May 2019

Imbued by both the musicality and spirit of David Bowie, Scott Walker, David Sylvian (both as a solo artist and with the fey romantics Japan), Kate Bush and in their most avant-garde mode, Bjork, the South London based duo of Raf (Raf Montelli) and O (Richard Smith) occupy the perimeters of alternative art-rock and experimental electronica as the true inheritors of those cerebral inspirations.

Previous albums by the unique duo have featured the most spellbinding, frayed accentuate of Bowie covers, with even Aladdin Sane’s oft pianist Mike Garson extolling their strung out exploration of ‘Lady Grinning Soul’, and a version of the Philly Soul period ‘Win’, quite exceptional in its purring beauty, that ranks amongst the best covers I’ve ever heard. Paying further tribune to, easily, the duo’s most revered musical deity, they lay a diaphanous ethereal accompanied wreath at the metaphorical graveside on the latest, and fourth, album opener ‘A Bow To Bowie’. With all the duo’s hymnal and venerable qualities in full bloom, Raf’s dream-realism coos and fluctuating accented velvety tones ripple through the Bowie cosmos; sending thanks across a strange space-y soundscape of satellite bleeps, mirror reversals and twilight vortex. If he is indeed somewhere up there in the void or ether, pricking our consciousness, I’m sure he’ll appreciate such sentiments and idol worship.

To add to the covers tally, Raf And O also weave a sophisticated dreamy elegy of the early but burgeoning Bowie plaint ‘The London Boys’; a wistful malady, already ghostly when it first emerged, resurrected by Bowie himself and slipped into later setlists, now elegantly clothed in a spell bounding, draped gauze by our duo.

 

Almost held in as high esteem, sharing the pantheon of idols, Kate Bush can be heard channeled through Raf’s extraordinary vocals: on the surface vulnerable and stark yet beneath lies a steely intensity that often whips, lashes and jolts. It’s unsurprising considering that Raf’s most recent side-project, the Kick Inside, is an acoustic tribute to Kate Bush that almost spookily capture’s the doyen’s phrasings and deft piano skills perfectly.

On their spiritual and philosophical quest to articulate the space between nothing and desire, Raf embodies that influence once more; crystallizing and reshaping to just an essence; part of a diverse vocal range that always manages to sound delicate but otherworldly, like an alien pirouette doll full of colourful giddy exuberance, yet a darker distress and tragedy lurks in the shadows.

 

Swept up in the Lutheran romantic maladies of a third idol, Scott Walker, Raf And O strip down and reconstruct the late lonesome maverick’s Jack Nitzsche-string conducted gravitas ‘Such A Small Love’. That stirring, solemn almost, ballad of existential yearning was originally part of the inaugural solo-launched songbook Scott. In this version those strings are replaced by, at first, a minimal revolving acoustic guitar and wash of sonorous bass. And instead of the reverential cooed baritone Raf’s hushed beatific voice is shadowed instead by a second slurred, slowed and deep, almost artificial, one: think a dying HAL.

 

Beautifully spinning a fine web of both delicate vulnerability and strength, at times even ominous, Raf And O seek out enchanting pleasures beneath the sea on ‘Underwater Blues’, crank up the gramophone and let the tanks trundle across a churning lamentable wasteland re-imagination of Bertolt Brecht’s famous unfinished WWI Downfall Of The Egoist Johann Fatzer on ‘With Fatzer’, and coo with a strange clipped vocal gate over a mellotron-like supernatural ballad soundtrack on ‘The Windmill’.

 

Sublime in execution, subtle but with a real depth and levity, TSBNAD is an astonishing piece of new romantic, avant-theater pop and electronica that dares to unlock the mind and fathom emotion. I’m not sure if they’ve found or articulated that space they seek, between nothing and desire, but the duo have certainly created a masterclass of pulchritude magnificence. Lurking leviathans, strange cosmic spells and trips into the unknown beckon on this, perhaps their most accomplished and best album yet; an example of tactile machinations and a most pure voice in synergy.

The influences might be old and well used, but Raf And O, as quasi-torchbearers, show the way forward. They deserve far more exposure and acclaim, and so here’s hoping that TSBNAD finally gains this brilliant duo their true worth.




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