Something I need to own up to before we start. I don't possess the patience to read fiction. I read factual books to discover more about things I think I already know, and I dip into them rather than read from cover to cover. I sort of need to know the ending before I begin; I'm interested in how things arrived at the end, rather than the ending itself. That said, one fictional series I've dabbled in is Philip Pulman's 'His Dark Materials' Trilogy, though dabbled is the right phrase, as I've only just made it through book 1. Watching the current BBC adaptation it's easy to see how stories of this kind can throw up interesting concepts, concepts that could inspire other creatives, and in the case of Nel Unlit, concepts that beget a concept album. But it's not Pullman's world that has inspired the band's main songwriter/lyricist, Jonathan Horner, no it's the dark fantasy world of Neil Gaiman - the author of such titles as 'The Sandman' and 'American Gods'. If I tell you that the bands debut album 'Wake For the Dreaming', which I've been fortunate enough to have heard well in advance of it's February release, has me now firmly committed to reading Gaiman's books, it will illustrate exactly how much this music has, in turn, inspired me. What a satisfying circle of pleasure!
Strange, because like fiction itself, this music requires a healthy dose of patience to appreciate fully. There's nothing immediate about it, except perhaps a nodding appreciation of its complexity and originality. But like all good fiction (I'm told), it reveals itself over time and only with complete listening does it declare it's full worth. It's very much an album you need to listen to in a single sitting; it has a narrative and a mood that develops beautifully and to pause it or (God forbid) stop it at any point, would be like eating a trifle but leaving the cream topping in the bowl. And I'm more of a lick the bowl clean man, myself.
Nel Unlit are a band almost as complex as the books that gave rise to their existence, or the music itself. The bands' physical 'home' is probably Teesside, though when at full strength, (that's NINE members), it pulls in musicians based in Manchester and London and from backgrounds as diverse as Ireland too. The core or the band is Jonathan, Clare Hargan and Ben Robinson. Many of the other members have projects of their own and were recruited, I like to imagine, just as The Magnificent Seven were, with Jon marauding the musical landscape in search of square pegs for square musical holes in order to bring the bands vision startlingly to life.
Francesca Pidgeon plays saxophone and sings with Nel Unlit. She's a talented multi-instrumentalist and has several other day jobs, not least her own band 'Dilettante', and as keys player in BC Camplight's acclaimed backing group. So how and why did she get involved in this project? "I met Jon on a songwriting residency that Field Music ran back in 2017 and we got talking about Anais Mitchell's folk-opera 'Hadestown.' He explained that Nel Unlit ws writing a similar album, a big concept piece, and I've always been excited by that idea of a long-form release. When I started writing the woodwind parts for the record I found it came together really naturally alongside the parts Jon already had."
The involvement of so many in the writing process is perhaps one reason the music sounds so complex, always twisting and turning, each individual song containing changes in pace, mood, instrumentation, often with multiple singing voices too. The attraction of individual tracks is not always immediate. There are instant pleasures to be enjoyed, not least the repetitive and addictive refrain at the heart of 'Fireflies', but all of the songs work best in the context of the whole record, which is as it should be on a concept album. The mood is generally plaintive, but again there are some notable contrasts provided, such as the rousing and rhythmic 'Robert'.
I've seen Nel Unlit perform live on three occasions, each time with a slightly different line up, though always with the core band intact. The music retains its complexity but takes on extra life in a live setting and has a more immediate impact. It's also worth noting that there has been notable development in performance over the last year or so. This bodes well for an upcoming tour to co-incide with the album's release. An official launch gig at Newcastle's Bobiks kicks things off on Saturday 15th February, the day after the album is released. Dates as far afield as London, Middlesbrough, Sheffield follow.
Francesca sums up the thrill of playing live with Nel Unlit by telling me "playing live is always really fun, it's been ages since I was in a project with lots of vocal harmony parts and I love singing with other people, there's nothing else like it."
If originality is a quality in music that you seek and enjoy, then Nel Unlit are a band you need to hear and experience live. If beautiful music, that reveals layers of complexity and gives endless returns of pleasure is your thing, then you need to purchase 'Wake For The Dreaming'.