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Exploring Birdsong - 'The Thing With Feathers' EP Review


1. Hope

2. The River

3. The Sinking Question

4. The Thing With Feathers

5. The Baptism

6. The Downpour

The sight of Haley’s comet, the transit of venus, a total solar eclipse… Some astrological events only happen once in a generation and, similarly, it’s only every once in a while that a band that you’ve never heard of comes out of the blue and completely blows your mind with their debut. I can only recall a few times in my life that this has happened, and I’m pretty certain that I’m experiencing it at this very moment. This is particularly surprising because the band in question don’t make the sort of music that I normally listen to; they can’t be defined as ‘Metal' or even really as 'Rock', so I can only really describe them in a catch-all fashion by labelling them as ‘Prog’, as my other attempts to categorise them have failed miserably. This however is a very good thing in my mind though - any band that defies classification is surely doing something original and is worth listening to, right?

Hailing from the hotbed of anthemic Rock’n’Roll that is Liverpool, Exploring Birdsong are a unique trio consisting of Matt Harrison on drums and percussion, Jonny Knight on bass and keyboards and Lynsey Ward on vocals and keyboards. They’ve been causing a bit of a stir in Prog-Rock circles since they appeared a couple of years ago, and if that conjures up images of men with long beards playing hammond organs, spacey pew-pew sounds from synths and 12-minute guitar solos with jazzy drums, you may be in for a bit of a surprise, because they actually sound nothing like that at all. They’ve developed a piano-led sound that reminds me of a few bands and artists, but it’s most notably Fleetwood Mac, Kate Bush and Steve Wilson that keep coming to mind, as well as a bit of Tori Amos for good measure.

Before even listening to ‘The Thing With Feathers’, I learned that the EP had a concept to it which lends it a deep emotional grounding, as it’s centred around the Seamus Heaney poem ‘Bye Child’ and the story of Kevin Halfpenny, which chronicles one of the most horrific and twisted cases of child cruelty ever recorded, which is a brave thing for any band to do, let alone one that’s just starting out.

The EP kicks off with 'Hope', a piano instrumental that will soothe the cockles of all but the hardest of hearts. It trickles and eddies out of the speakers in a series of muted minor chords and is almost disarmingly beautiful and serene. It sets the tone nicely for the remainder of the EP and you’d be forgiven for thinking that the rest of its tracks were going to follow in a similarly quiet and serene manner, but this quickly changes as the piano is attacked with much more gusto in the intro to ‘The River’, and when Harrison starts thumping his kit and Knight's bass comes into the mix it becomes immediately apparent that things are about to get very interesting. The first thing you'll notice straight away about Exploring Birdsong’s sound is that there’s the absence of lead and rhythm guitars. This initially seems like a brave and bold thing to do, but it quickly becomes clear that the band are not lacking in anything as a result, and when the opening bridge of the track comes to an end and Ward’s vocals come to the fore, you realise that you’re listening to something very special indeed. With just a softly-played piano to accompany her, I state without a hint of a doubt that her voice is a bit of a revelation. It’s difficult to sufficiently describe her voice with words alone, but her voice to my ears sounds like an amalgamation of Stevie Nicks and Annie Lennox as it’s got a timeless, ethereal quality to it, and she delivers the opening lines with powerful poignancy that it’s difficult to not feel swept along the river by her words.

The next track 'The Sinking Question' builds upon the relative lightness of the first track as it kicks off with a meaty bassline, punchy drums and driving piano before segwaying into a series of beautiful arrangements with evocative lyrics that are again delivered with heartfelt honesty and powerful emotion by Ward. The track is wonderfully atmospheric and instrumental and breaks into a couple of dramatic, swelling and moody sections with discordant piano, thrumming bass and impressive drumming. Most impressively, just three tracks into this EP and I'm already shaking my head in disbelief at this band’s talent, and can feel the tingly prickle of goosebumps on my skin as a result.

If you didn't have goosebumps by this point, the next track 'The Thing With Feathers' should do the job. It's a short but stunning choral piece that by the band that’s epic, uplifting and incredibly beautiful, and is best experienced with your eyes closed for maximum effect. It leads into the penultimate track on the EP, 'The Baptism', which sets off with a short piano riff before Harrison breaks into a fairly quick-paced but short piece of frenzied drumming, which he soon dials down a bit as the song levels out into a steadier pace. This is a song of varied textures which ebbs and flows before surging into the biggest chorus of the EP, which sees the band slip into full Fleetwood Mac-esque mode with Ward laying down some stunningly layered harmonies and a brilliantly catchy melody that will haunt your ears for days afterwards. From there, the song switches into another varied section with amazing orchestration that rolls and undulates before feeling like it’s beginning to peter out, but it broods quietly for a few moments longer before building back up again into a superb instrumental section with superb plucky bass work by Knight before Harrison breaks into a final frenzy of fast drumming. This is the standout track on the EP for me, because it's so deliciously varied and truly showcases the band's talent; there are almost too many nice little touches and moments of brilliance to mention, and it’s all rounded-off with another amazing vocal performance by Ward.

This brings us to the final track on the EP, 'The Downpour', which begins with the muted sound of a child's music box and grows into the band's now-familiar piano-led sound. Ward's vocals take the lead for the majority of the song, and they’re once again delivered with a level of passion and maturity that it beggars belief that you’re listening to the band’s first EP. The song briefly breaks into a gentle beat at the two-thirds mark as Harrison and Knight smoothly add an extra dimension to Ward's voice and piano before it dramatically builds into a final section in which we hear her really cut loose with her vocals to spine-tingling effect. The song just keeps building and building and building in intensity before it comes to a somewhat abrupt end, leaving you begging for more.

This is easily one of the best debut EP’s I’ve ever heard, which is crafted with such a high level of quality and maturity that you’d swear that you were listening to a band that have been around for years. The musicianship and writing is off the scale and while I’ve concentrated on the undeniably amazing vocals and piano playing of Ward, I should really make a special mention about Harrison’s punchy drumming and Knight’s versatile and dynamic bass, because their individual input and backing vocals are integral to the sound of the band and are delivered with virtuoso flair and ability.

Summing up, I reckon that it’s fair to say that Exploring Birdsong are going to be a band to watch in 2020 as they’re a band of such rare talent that should, if the world has any sense, be selling out gigs and flying high in the charts. If you love proggy, gentle music that’s charged with emotion and originality, look no further - give these guys a listen and thank me later.

Review - Craig Henderson

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