Rookery Ensemble are an experimental and improvised band formed in 2011 with a core of partners George E Harris and Alison O’Melia. They combine hypnotic use of instruments and electronics with spoken word and poetry and create glorious tension between the challenging and the chilled.
But their new album, Islets Of Langerhans, has had a troubled journey. Its inception was on a day in 2019 where Alison and George were joined by Erik Moore (An Upside Down Tree) and Mark Hill (Metamono/An Upside Down Tree) for a day of improvised recordings (fuelled by George’s home-made curry). But shortly after recording, and as COVID started to lock the world down, Alison was diagnosed with a terminal condition. The couple did some online performances during 2020 but sadly, in December that year Alison passed away.
George’s grief for the loss of such a beautiful soul was devastating and while he turned to writing to try and make sense of the pain eventually the idea of completing the album came back into focus, not least because releasing it would be a fitting tribute to his great love and their fruitful collaborations. For the release, the original improvised recordings have been enhanced with musicians Jessica Cahill (Hurdy Gurdy), Demi Garcia Sabat (drums and percussion), Mitzy Valentine (vocal and flute) and David Rothon (pedal steel/Omnichord).
These are tracks that you give yourself over to. Percussion crinkles, piano punctuates, pedal steel swoons, the footsteps of the bass guitar, the infinity of space that the hurdy gurdy and Omnichord provide, and the radio effects and electronics swirl in and around the instruments and non-instruments, like using the typewriter as a percussive instrument on the title track. And throughout is George’s spoken word, his part-surreal, part fantastical, part realist take on the world around him. A narrator from liminal space. There is remarkable cohesion for music that was built on improvisation, but this often happens with people who trust in each other as much as the process.
Islets Of Langerhans has rescued beauty from sadness and hearing Alison’s voice inevitably brings added poignancy when listening to it. The album is a fitting tribute to love, loss and a life lived through music and I’ll leave the last words to George:
“This Album of Sounds, Words, Songs and Improvisation is here as a tribute to Alison O’Melia. An artist, musician, therapist, lover, partner, daughter, sister, auntie, reader, speaker, teacher, lecturer, campaigner and friend.”
Half the sales of the album will go to St. Christopher’s Hospice
Review by Paul F Cook