Pram Return After a Decade With the Haunting “Across The Meridian”

Pram

Photo by Scott Johannsson

When a band loses their lead vocalist—the person who often acts as a focal point fans—it can be a devastating blow. The group either scatter to the winds, carry on in a diminished form, or has to radically adjust their approach to make way for a new voice. That was the challenge that faced Pram, the U.K.-based experimental pop project, when their longtime lead singer and keyboardist Rosie Cuckston decided to leave the group during the tour for their 2007 album The Moving Frontier.

The split was amicable, but it still felt momentous. Her unique vocal timbre—a perfect midpoint between the flat affect of Young Marble Giants’ singer Alison Stratton and the giddy warble of Marine Girls member Alice Fox—and often fantastical lyrics provided florid accents to the band’s already colorful music. She seemed impossible to replace. According to Pram’s co-founder and multi-instrumentalist Matt Eaton, the challenge was not as daunting as it initially seemed.

“We found it fairly easy to get going again,” he says, speaking via Skype from his home in Birmingham, England. “We played 50% instrumentals anyway, but we all read lots, and are quite capable of writing lyrics well. Sam [Owen, longtime member of the group] started singing a few songs, and those led to more and more. Now, we’ve hit that point where the new album is half songs with lyrics and half instrumentals.”

That new album is Across The Meridian, the first collection of Pram material in 11 years. Constructed from improvisations recorded in a studio in Wales that were then subject to a post-production process that included overdubs, sampling, and editing (Eaton refers to it as “collaging”), the record is the perfect next step in the band’s evolution. The elements of their sound, which uses strands of library music, jazz, dub reggae, and exotica to create the rubbery, whimsical sensation of an ether high are there, but the songs feel more earthbound. Some of them—the drunken circus soundtrack of “Electra” and the unhinged space age second line jazz found on “The Midnight Room”—hearken back to the discordance that marked early efforts like 1993’s Iron Lung EP, produced by Godflesh leader Justin K. Broadrick.

Pram first formed not long before the release of that EP, spawned from the same community of music and art obsessives that included members of Broadcast and Plone. From those noisy beginnings, the group gradually expanded their sound, introducing horns and woodwinds that gave later records like 2000’s The Museum of Imaginary Animals and 2003’s appropriately-titled Dark Island a more sensual atmosphere.

What kept Pram from dissolving after Cuckston left was the collectivist mindset the group adhere to. “Our unwritten manifesto is that the music is a product of all of us,” Eaton says. “You’ll never see a picture of us on our records ever.” In the band photos that do exist, the members are usually obscuring their faces with masks or deep shadows.

This spirit also means that it can be hard to pin down who was responsible for the creation of individual songs on Pram’s albums. Some of them start with the band slicing out the best segments of a jam session; others are bits of raw material brought in by individual members. From there, it all starts to bleed and blend together to form an aggregated whole.

“It works in every way you can think of,” says Eaton. “There’s one song, ‘Shadow In Twilight’ that I wrote lyrics and chords for and had an idea for how the guitars would work. I took it to the band, and it’s completely different than what I’d imagined. With this album, we spent a year recording and re-recording. Sampling and resampling ourselves. We spend a long time writing arrangements and our collaging process takes a long time.”

The density of the music on Meridian bears that out. Tracks like “Thistledown” and “Sailing Stones” feel fluffy and light, but are built from a thick center of psych guitar racket and synthesizer chaos. Floating between those songs is more hallucinatory material—the drifting “Where The Sea Stops Moving” and the chattering “Wave of Translation,” for example—that could nicely soundtrack the slow, fluid movements of a lava lamp.

And while Pram have been relatively silent for the last 10 years, Eaton went to great pains to explain that the band’s members have hardly been dormant. In addition to solo projects and day jobs, they’ve spent the intervening years collaborating with artist Scott Johnson on multimedia performances for which they soundtracked an array of films, animation, and shadow puppetry. There’s already another Pram album in the works that was initially recorded in Germany at the studio run by Faust member Hans Joachim Irmler.

“It doesn’t feel like we’ve really been away,” Eaton says. “To the general public who would look online for a new release, it looks like we just split up and then reformed. Up until 2007, we spent over 15 years working quite hard, producing lots of material and releasing an album a year. Gradually that slows down, by necessity. But we’ve been working all this time. We are always quite busy.”

-Robert Ham

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