Occasionally one hears an album and is immediately struck by the dexterity of the songwriting, music with a message, delivered, like a Trojan horse, amongst exquisitely constructed tunes. “Before Koresh”, the seventh album from UK-based collage artist and musician Ashley Reaks, is one such album. There is a sense from the opening bars of the title track that the listener is about to embark upon an education, and will in all probability enjoy every moment of it. A mesmerising cast of collaborators also guarantees a thought-provoking journey. Joining Reaks on vocals, bass, guitars and keyboards we have Maria Jardardottir on vocalizations, Dave Kemp on saxes, guitar, bass recorder and accordion, Nick Dunne on guitar solos, Hull poet Joe Hakim on vocals, postman Kevin Boniface on vocals and legendary Dickies vocalist (yes, THE Dickies) Leonard Graves Philips vocals on “The Dustman”. Many of the songs on here appear, on first hearing, innocuous and charming, but careful, repeated listening reveals an off-kilter disturbing element that Reaks appears to master. Lyrics such as “He throws dust in the eyes of all the babies that he meets…” add a menacing quality to “The Dustman”.
Influences appear from many disparate genres as dub reggae and dissonant sound collages characterise ‘Wearside Jack’, whilst affectionate, suburban folk permeates through ‘Gleaming Cinders’. ‘Crystal’ and the gloriously titled ‘I Want to Get A Celebrity Pregnant’ showcase the caustic, yet uproarious, talents of wordsmith Joe Hakim. The words are at once abrasive and austere, yet within the context of the other music on “Before Koresh”, playful and taunting. Slightly less uncompromising, but none the less poignant, is the voice of Huddersfield Postman Kevin Boniface on the mischievous ‘Mr Barton and The Squirrels’. The unsettled integrated with the harmonious is a specific characteristic of “Inch Perfect” which fuses an almost childlike musical box melody with backwards vocals and an ominous bass line. ‘Hell And Back Again’ closes the album with a subtle blend of sing-along refrains, jazz funk and dissonant improvisation, which, on paper, would appear incompatible, but which on “Before Koresh” appear totally conventional.
The collage on the album cover itself adds a further sense of the dislocated and the macabre, which feels totally in keeping with the whole aesthetic of “Before Koresh”. There is undeniably an uneasy listening quality to this latest release from Ashley Reaks, and we can only hope that this way of thinking and composing will continue to flourish with future releases. This is music to challenge boundaries of acceptability and the status quo. Anyone who can create an exuberant lilting piece of music using sound samples from hoax “Yorkshire Ripper” telephone messages sent from John Humble to Assistant Chief Constable George Oldfield and the Daily Mirror in the late 1970’s must surely be worth repeated listening.