The Magnetic North LIVE @ Islington Assembly Hall – 24.6.13

“When someone comes to you in a dream and tells you to make an album about your homeland – would you disregard it? Especially when that someone is Betty Corrigall, the Orcadian girl who in the 1770’s killed herself having been cast out by her village after becoming pregnant by a visiting sailor?” 

So very rarely are fans presented with a front row seat to the entire creative process of a band but that’s exactly what The Magnetic North do tonight with a 30 minute film, ‘Hunting For Remoteness’, that plays before their set. It’s a culmination and celebration of every detail of Scottish village Orkney that informed and inspired their re-launched album ‘Orkney: Symphony of The Magnetic North’. Soft, panning shots of locals in front of tall cliffs, the band gingerly stepping over rocks, boats pulling into the harbour, journeys across the vast sea and a real sense of town spirit make up their debut film and witnessing their vision makes for a greater appreciation of their music.

The set opens, as does the album, with ‘Stromness’, a track whose focal point is lead singer Hannah Peel’s ethereal ‘ahhh’s that are as light and delicate as her full-length chiffon Kate Bush dress. The trombones that open the song were influenced by the boat horns that are sounded on arrival, a noise that echoes through the “tiny, sheltered, harboured village”. As they move into ‘Ward Hill’, any notions of them being just a small town band become laughable as their sound extends further and wider than this. It takes two violins, one viola and one cello all working furiously to create the furore of the chorus that then slows down into gentle drums. Timpani sticks meet the cymbals as if to mimic the sound of crashing waves. ‘Ward Hill’ sounds much more atmospheric echoing out into the high ceilings of Islington Assembly Hall than it does on the album. Their sound lends itself well to these kinds of vast, ornate spaces as footage of their performance in a Scottish cathedral proves.

The organic background vocals found on the album come from the locals of Hoy, mostly in their old age. “We couldn’t bring the Orkney choir down like we planned” announces Hannah, but they welcome a small choir who, incredibly, had only been working with the band for 5 hours prior to tonight’s gig, though you’d never guess that during tracks like ‘Rackwick’. “I need somebody/Someone to hold me/Just like you used to” sings Hannah and bassist Erland Cooper, two voices that melt warmly into one another. The distinctive keyboard melody makes it a stand-out track on the album and the most commercially accessible. The stand-out track of the evening however is ‘Old Man of Hoy’ because of its stunningly original opening. Hannah reveals a dainty music box that she winds to produce the most delicate and hypnotising of sounds. Hannah compares the fragility of the music box to that of a rock stack in Hoy whose shape is similar to the face of an old man, hence the title of the track. Every element of the song builds up so euphorically; the choir, the strings, the brass, the drums and the guitar of former Verve member Simon Tong.

Tonight’s rendition of ‘Nethertons Teeth’, a poem put to music, is bravely performed acoustic. All microphones are off, all eyes rest upon Hannah and Erland, all ears are pricked up and it makes for a more intimate performance. It feels almost theatrical in delivery as the pair positions themselves at the front of the stage, singing both to us and to each other, as if in a stage production of ‘High Society’. The subject of their penultimate track ‘Yesnaby’ seems to be the fresh air and serenity of Orkney; “In my head, I just need a place to go/No more shouting/No more silence”. The background plays like fairground music or the distant melody of an ice cream van. After a demand for an encore that leaves the floorboards bouncing, The Magnetic North return for bonus track ‘Hoy Sound’. The stage lights up and smoke swirls through the paths of light as the ‘ahhhhs’ of the choir fill the room.

“We have a curse of Betty Corrigall in the band” says Hannah, “when things go wrong, we say it’s because of her”. Well Betty was certainly on their side tonight with an orchestral, lifting performance of their album born from a passion of where they’re from and a vision of where they’re going.

Amy Bryant