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Sophia - As We Make Our Way (Unknown Harbours)

Sophia - As We Make Our Way (Unknown Harbours)The God Machine should have been huge. Three friends, Robin Proper-Shepherd, Ron Austin and Jimmy Fernandez, who's superb debut album, Scenes From The Second Storey, was released through Fiction in 1993. Wonderfully noisey with huge breadth and creativity it should have been the start of a great career. Unfortunately while recording their second album, One Last Laugh In A Place Of Dying, Jimmy Fernando died of a brain tumour. Robin and Ron decided they couldn't continue and a hugely promising band fell by the wayside.

Robin returned to music with a new band, Sophia, who have been releasing albums with various line-ups ever since. A completely different animal, Sophia's music is quieter, more introverted and downbeat that his previous band. As We Make Our Way (Unknown Harbours) is Robin's sixth studio album released under the Sophia banner. It has to be said that after the triumphs that were People Are Seasons Too and Technology Won't Save Us, last album There Are No Goodbyes sounded lacklustre and tired. It really didn't sound like Robin was in a good or creative place.

The good news is that As We Make Our Way (Unknown Harbours) is a real return to form. Opening with the short instrumental Unknown Harbours, a gorgeous piano piece which leads us into Resisting. An insistent rhythm sets the song up nicely, with a gently strummed acoustic guitar, loose drumming and Robin's honied vocals. An electric guitar takes over the riff, building into more of a wall of noise, as the song becomes more impassioned as Robin asks plaintifly… "I don't know what we're always resisting, or what we're even kicking against".

The Drifter arrives languidly, the sparse arrangement suiting the melancholy feel of the song. Piano occasionally breaks through adding mournful melody and you can just picture the song's character slowly moving from place to place, sadly leaving behind those he knew. Don't Ask has more of a jangly, country feel to it and Robin's vocals are whispered, almost lost in the hush of the song. Blame has a faster tempo and has a more upbeat feel to it musically even if the lyrics are still sad… "I've made enough mistakes for both of us, and it's OK I'll take the blame." The combination of acoustic guitar, synths and militaristic drumming make a lush backdrop.

Whilst Proper-Shepherd may have rediscovered his songwriting mojo, the subject matter of his lyrics is much the same as usual - love, loss and sadness. You can hear the ache and disappointment in his voice on almost every song, although occasionally a song like California breaks that mold. Musically the songs are quirky, melancholy and endearing, bringing to mind early R.E.M., Interpol at their most introverted and Lyndsey Buckingham at his best, none more so than on St. Tropez / The Hustle. With it's jagged acoustic, humming organ and echoey vocals, this is such a different style of song for Sophia and consequently is one of the best things Robin Proper-Shepherd has written. As the tune progresses strange electric guitar noises appear underneath the main body of the song, courtesy of Swervedriver's Adam Franklin, which helps propel the tune to it's end.

You Say It's Alright is heralded by a fairground style organ with Robin's high pitched, dreamy vocals buried in the mix. The drums join in to help propel the ever so catchy synth riff along. Another song that demonstrates the ability of Proper-Shepherd to push his own songwriting boundaries as the sound gradually swells and grows until it fades quickly. Baby Hold On reverts to the quieter style of the earlier songs, just acoustic guitar and voice until understated drums join in to keep the beat.

It's Easy To Be Lonely closes the album in fine style. The song builds gradually with violin and French Horn and the London "Gutter" Choir providing accompaniment and harmony. A gorgeous song that builds momentum as instruments join in and start to get louder, it almost seems almost to be an antidote to Robin's jaded view of the world, although we are berated for taking the easy path, rather than hard choices and chances to make ourselves happy.

Despite Robin Proper-Shepherd 's world-weary take on life he is still a fine songwriter as these ten tunes prove. There is a loose feel about the album's recording and mixing although that's not to say it is slapdash. The songs are given room to breathe and there is a brightness and transparency about the compositions. Robin supplies all the voice, guitar, piano and synths and after all these years he is a master of his craft. Drums and Percussion are furnished by Jeff Townsin and Sander Verstraete plays bass on all tracks bar It's Easy To Be Lonely where there are a lot of guest musicians. It's been six years since There Are No Goodbyes but Robin seems to have returned rejuvenated and with renewed purpose on this fine release.

Released: 15.04.2016

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