Album review: Culley’s dark sparkle on Phosphor

The cover of Karl Culley's Phosphor album. (Album sleeve by Reece Jones, Greig Johnson and Kristyna Baczynski)
The cover of Karl Culley's Phosphor album. (Album sleeve by Reece Jones, Greig Johnson and Kristyna Baczynski)

Review by Gig Scene Editor Graham Chalmers

Phosphor: Karl Culley (album)

The highest compliment I can pay Karl Culley isn’t to mention his dazzling technique on his Martin 000-15 acoustic guitar nor the feeling that goes into his memorable songs of romantic lament and spiritual searching.

It’s to say that, in a time when the obvious is king, this unique talent remains an enigma.

All that amazing, non-stop energy on his incredibly dynamic percussive guitar rhythms. All those dark lyrical themes.

The warm thrum of freewheeling finger-picking. The spartan nature of the skeletal musical settings.

That boyish charm and softspoken crowd-pleasing on stage. Those moaning, mumbling, haunted vocals on record.

For Phosphor, Culley returned to Isle of Jura studio, working once again with musician and producer Giles Perring. While the latter adds atmospheric splashes of piano and backing vocals, his regular accompanist Ash Johnson contributes upright bass and Phillip Harper supplies occasional percussion.

The result is Culley’s third stunning album on the trot but, while the sheer quality of this former Harrogate singer-songwriter’s modern folk-blues songs is as high as ever, the mystery remains.

Is Culley intellectual or primitive, positive or negative, a musician or a poet?

One thing’s for sure, if he wanted to deliver a more radio-friendly collection he’s got the songwriting skills to do so.

Opening track Bag of Tricks follows the likes of Bound for the Ground off previous album The Owl and Thick As Thieves off debut Demons in the catchy, toe-tapping stakes.

The midget gem that is Qualifier, meanwhile, finds him turning the plight of a lonely tennis star on the world tour into a subtly brilliant talking blues song.

A seeker of deeper truths, Culley is not one to take the easy path. He is the real deal, writing songs of life to last a lifetime.

Instrumentally, the warmth of his incredibly agile guitar playing may resonate with traces of John Martyn, Paul Simon, Bert Jansch and Davy Graham.

But the multi-layered lyrics of hypnotic songs like Dragon Kite and Silver Set of Bones shows darker roots - that charcoal mix of the physical and metaphysical shared by two of his biggest literary influences – Ted Hughes and Cormac McCarthy.

On the other hand, as anyone who’s ever seen him playing live knows, there always a mischievous twinkle in this eye, too.

Karl Culley is no Ed Sheeran, no follower of musical fashion. Fundamentally, he stands above idle comparisons. The highest compliment I can pay him is to say that, in a time when the obvious is king, this unique talent remains an enigma.

www.karlculley.co.uk