Album Appreciation: International Treasure by The Utopia Strong

I was a bit late to the party with Utopia Strong… to the extent that I had to shoehorn their 2019 self-titled release into my ’Essential’ list last year on the strength of a re-pressing. It was a real slow-burner for me… fortified by a live performance which I caught in York back in November… a time when we seemed to be dodging Covid and catching a band was a somewhat hit and miss affair.

I don’t think that this backdrop did the music any harm because it gave a feeling of finding some sort of cultural oasis… something that was enhanced by their playing with perennial favourites of mine, Teeth of the Sea, and that one of the trio Mike York had to miss subsequent gigs because of the virus…

As a consequence I felt extremely fortunate to witness The Utopia Strong in all their significant, if understated, glory… in this sense they very much let their music do the talking… and I was finally smitten by their sound. But now they have released their second album, again on Rocket Recordings, and I have to say that after a few listens it feels like a major step forward… even when compared with the debut.

Here you get the sense that this is no ’difficult second album’ perhaps because the original seemed to arrive so organically out of Klaus Torabi and Steve Davis’s DJ sets… and they continue to produce recorded music from the distillation of improvisations… giving each track a nice combination of the loose and the structured… it’s like each one is somehow reverse engineered into its current state. The album opens with ‘Trident of Fire’ which, in a sense, takes us back to the first album… the modular synths are front and centre as the drones dominate the number… perhaps attuning our ears for what is to come… I like the metallic element here which is at the same time redolent of something more industrial, yet a the same time the are traces of certain 60s/ 70s TV Themes…

This is followed by ’Persephone Sleeps’… which from the off is a beautiful number with a real soft complexity to it… it’s comforting without being easy going… and as you get deeper into it you realise how much is going on in there… you feel surrounded by the blips and eddys of the music (especially with headphones)… it is so immersive to the extent that you just want to give into it and let the whole thing just flow…

This remains the case with ’Shepherdess’ which also has more of a folky feel through the treated voices that beckon you even farther into this album’s purview… then once it has caught you it rewards you by opening its sound out into a vast sonic cavern… partially through Torabi’s use of a guzheng (a Chinese plucked zither)… it really is a stunning journey that takes you completely into another world…

Now fully immersed ‘Spirits From The Deep’… as the title suggests…. takes you further in… Even before I saw the title I was imagining being down in the depths of the sea with those fish that have lantern like lights in front of them… surreal and slightly unsettling… a vibe that persists with ’The Islanders’… which seems to have a dog’s chew toy in the mix… it is like one of those half-sleeping dreams where you are not sure what is real and what is imagined… the whole thing being somewhat shrouded in a blanket of mystery…

This is somewhat washed away by the rainfall at the beginning if ’Disaster 2’… but instead of sun drenched uplands you get the dark lament of York’s bagpipes… his playing of which I was very taken with when I saw the band live. After this, however, there is a freshness to ’Revelations’ which seems to, at least initially, raise the cloud to a certain degree… before, that is, we start to feel the heavy insertion of sounds that would not be out of place on Hildur Guðnadóttir’s Chernobyl soundtrack… such is its ravaging beauty… this really is a number that starts you off in a relatively upbeat place but gradually drags you down to face what ever reality you feel that you need to confront…

You are not there for long, however, the title track being intense but lacking in that real blackness that tinged ’Revelations’. Here you again feel as if the music is enveloping you… the drones again taking the lead in a way that is just so satisfying… a wonderful track to have near the end of the album.

But we are not quite at the end… because ’Castalia’ feels like the post-wrap party… a far more upbeat track than the rest of the album which might even get you up on your feet if you are so inclined. I imagine that in the future there will be times when I just listen to this… and there will be times when I listen to the rest of the album without it… that aside I find it somewhat comforting that The Utopia Strong also have this string to their collective and partially virtual bows… something that their DJ sets would anyway evidence… and overall it is a nicely upbeat way to end an incredible set which I am only too happy to have this time found on its release… expect a more punctual appearance in this year’s ’Essential’ list…

‘International Treasure’ is out now on Rocket Recordings.



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