Second time, round: Kate Arnold, ‘Rota Fortunae II’ EP

For the second year running, Kate Arnold has released a set of songs that possess so much beauty, intricacy and eloquence, they are like precision hits of perfection.

This is a genuinely long-awaited release: I’ve looked forward to a sequel ever since Arnold issued ‘Rota Fortunae I’ in February 2020. Understandably, the follow-up has taken a little longer to arrive than previously scheduled. But never mind. It’s here now.

Since downloading ‘Rota Fortunae II’ (CDs are available from the end of the month), I have played at least some of its tracks every day. The opening song connected with me so forcefully that I felt my eyes tear up with joy on first listen. The EP is full of moments that lift the spirits, that make audible the love and care someone has for their art. But I realise that I have to let the rope ladder down from cloud nine, descend to earth and somehow describe this music for your benefit. So here goes.

Kate Arnold’s key instrument is the hammered dulcimer, supplemented by violin and hand drum. She’s an equally resourceful kindred spirit to certain other musicians I often write about (for example, Matt Howden aka Sieben, or Jo Quail), in that she uses looping technology to harness and expand the scope of her chosen ‘classical’ instruments, build her tracks in layers, and perform fully-arranged, multi-part versions of her compositions solo, live.

The dulcimer lends itself beautifully to this treatment. Anyone familiar with it will recognise that, through the repeated striking of the strings, and resulting wash of echo, you get both a consistent, rhythmic pulse and a wall of blended sound, all at once. Imagine these lines looped so they dovetail around each other, and you have an inkling of the glorious cascades of melody running through Arnold’s work.

But what makes the EPs even more of a pleasure to listen to – and write about – is an appreciation of how brilliantly constructed the whole ‘Rota Fortunae’ experience is. Everything is interlinked with everything else: concept, execution, music, lyrics, arrangements, artwork… it’s a fully-realised creative universe, and I think this is key to why I’m so willing and able to get lost in it.

A passionate medievalist, Arnold is immersed in both early music and the wider culture surrounding it. In the lyrics, history, science and a hint of the spiritual/paranormal collide as we range across time and space. The words are a pleasure to hear sung, from wordplay and semantic flourishes (“the angel’s in the detail”, “trick-track”) to unforgettable rhymes (“a pushing of the envelope / just one twist of the kaleidoscope”) and haunting images (“to slow the blinking of the eye”). There’s a whole lexicon of evocative scientific terms binding the tracks together: ‘sensorial’, ‘pendulum’, ‘meridian’, ‘singularity’… how nourishing it is to hear so erudite a set of songs.

The musical approach reflects and respects this subject matter. After all, the dulcimer itself is something of an instrumental TARDIS, appearing in many forms, under many names, across so wide a timeframe and range of cultures. Afficionados of both early classical and world music can feel instantly at home here. Add to this Arnold’s folk-inflected vocals, which reach the angelic planes of purity when needed, but elsewhere possess a earthier, intimate ‘own accent’ delivery that commands your attention. Overall, the sound is uniquely hers, but it with the potential to touch so many people, as long as it finds them.

You could still argue that this conceptual depth wouldn’t matter if the tunes didn’t stand up by themselves. But there’s no need, because the songcraft is impeccable. At the time of writing, the track that has me most tightly in its clutches is ‘Tooth and Claw’. (If you want to avoid ‘spoilers’, why not go to Arnold’s Bandcamp page and take a listen – then come back here and read on.) Here’s why, in a handy bulleted list:

  • A gentle, circling hook from the dulcimer is joined by Arnold’s vocal, which cleaves to an even tighter repeating figure over the top – making the first verse feel slightly claustrophobic and creating tension.
  • However, the second verse (operating like a chorus in disguise) breaks the pattern and, like the sun emerging from behind a cloud, lifts the circular melody up in a moment of resolution that packs the song’s first euphoric punch.
  • The first half of this second-verse section introduces a chord pattern that feels so natural, it gives a shiver-down-the-spine moment of resolution on almost every line. Then the second half emphasises this further as the voice climbs higher on certain notes but always finds its way home. It’s such a beautiful piece of writing: the form makes you anticipate certain parts of the melody returning to where they were, but Arnold doesn’t always take the return trip in exactly the way you expect. As a result, the familiar and unfamiliar occupy the same space.
  • The song then repeats the same pattern for a third and fourth verse, but with added string parts. In theory, you really do know what’s coming this time with the ‘hidden chorus’, but now it has an added filmic sweep and underlying bass rumble to accentuate the key points.
  • An instrumental break brings another punch-the-air moment as a nimble drum pattern kicks in to underpin the ‘rhythm’ dulcimer part and a ‘lead’ dulcimer line introduces a brand new melody.
  • After following this tune round for two cycles, the instrumental suddenly heads off into the stratosphere, knocking the song a little off-balance, the high dulcimer notes carrying an air of fragility and bringing back the initial tension in a totally new guise.
  • Then a moment that actually made me catch my breath – for a song displaying such rhythmic rigour, there is a split-second pause, a holding back, before it finds the ‘chorus’ again, now of course, with the full arsenal of drums and layered strings supporting the dulcimer and voice.
  • And while you’re still recovering from that, there is a delicate surprise waiting in the final few notes.

I have hit ‘repeat’ on ‘Tooth and Claw’ more times than I care to count. I hope the deep-dive above starts to convey something of the painstaking care and attention to detail under the bonnet of this EP. The rest follows suit. ‘Clockwork Man’, opening with haunting choir and moving into treated vocals, creates an elusive, eerie atmosphere before a rush of energy from the dulcimer sends it spinning off in a totally new direction.

‘Just Born’, released as a lead track late last year, and which in any sane universe would be regarded as a (*checks notes*) ‘chart banger’, also reveals its riches in expertly restrained fashion. Simultaneously steady and relentless, it almost feels too slow to continue at the outset, with a fractured beat and sparse bass line promising the most intermittent of pulses, until of course the dulcimer hook arrives and that sustain property I mentioned before bathes the track in sound.

From that point on, even as the tempo holds the tune back, Arnold creates a sense of urgency by making the key moments in the song happen a little ahead of time – her vocal is a real joy here – assertive, jazz-inflected, even with a ‘recitative’ element where she seems to skip slightly in front of the beat to speak to us more directly, insistently. A deep string riff bursts into the verses unexpectedly; the wordless violin chorus grabs us a note or two before we’re properly ready. The constant push of the song, the striving to outrun time, brings to life its subject matter about our human desire to somehow outlast our mortality.

Listen out here, too, for that detail. In the first verse, the uncertain mood is maintained and melody muted; verse 2, and halfway through there’s a gesture towards resolution as the vocal springs upwards, opening some space in the arrangement; finally, at the same point in verse 3, the bass line shifts to give a proper resolution – that euphoric shiver down the spine again – at the exact point the lyric speaks of us at our most resolute.

Closing track ‘In Nomine’ is a cover version of the only surviving piece of music from 16th century composer Picforth. At face value, it’s a modest, brief affair: a delicate instrumental, a parting gesture. In fact, it’s a perfect fit for the whole concept, being a musical curiosity: each of the parts written for the piece play the same length of note all the way through. The tune is not what it seems; more is going on than meets the ear; and behind the melodic gift lies meticulous construction and craft.

‘Rota Fortunae II’ is a wonderful release in its own right. It feels designed for uninterrupted listening (‘Clockwork Man’ ends with unaccompanied beats, as ‘Just Born’ starts; ‘Just Born’ closes with faded dulcimer, paving the way for ‘In Nomine’), and the sequence as a whole becomes addictive.

But at the same time, it would be amiss not to consider its relationship to ‘Rota Fortunae I’. If you don’t have either EP yet, I would strongly recommend you get both. In terms of length, you could consider the two EPs together as an album – but if so, it would be old-school, vinyl, with a definite Side 1 and Side 2. (That would certainly do justice to Scott Brimley’s striking photography and Jordan Smith’s intriguing sleeve design.)

If anything, the first record feels a little pacier; despite its rushes of energy, there’s a statelier vibe to this second part: we are further on in the journey, who knows how many turns of the wheel later. That said, the two EPs display a certain symmetry that adds to one’s appreciation of both: for example, the catchy rhythmic drive of ‘Just Born’ has a cousin in the first EP’s ‘For Barely One in a Thousand (The Practice of Lights)’, and like ‘In Nomine’ on ‘RF II’, the cover version on ‘RF I’, ‘The Wind and I Must Sing’, is the only piece by its composer to survive fully intact – there, Arnold channels the 13th century trobairtz (female troubadour) Beatriz, Comtessa di Dia.

Reading a translation of the Comtessa’s lines, the force of personality outlasting the centuries is striking: a story of tenderness and heartbreak, but told by a woman of total self-belief, confidence and clear-sightedness. How appropriate, then, that Arnold should feel this affinity with her medieval predecessor – given her forthright, unique lyrical style and total mastery of her craft. And Fortune has smiled on us in the end, because all of Kate Arnold’s music – so far, excitingly! – is available to everyone. Please support, enjoy and share it.

AA

Buy Kate Arnold’s music through her Bandcamp page. Here are direct links to:

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