Sol Invictus: Trieste, Sally Doherty & the Sumacs: Sleepy Memory

Tony Wakeford is the nearly man of the World Serpent family. Lacking the tragic intensity of David Tibet, the mad sonic inventiveness of Steven Stapleton and even the dramatic flourish of his former Death In June cohort Douglas P, Wakeford has over a number of albums refined his method into one of misanthropic lyrics and unadorned chamber music arrangements.

Unfortunately, this approach falls down on a number of counts, all of which are in plentiful evidence on this live recording from 1999. In the first place, Wakeford – as he candidly admits, but which honesty helps his case not a jot – is a truly awful singer. Secondly, his lyrics are a farrago of toe-curling rhymes, rank pomposity and sixth-form platitudinising. Thirdly, the music, though competently performed, lacks melodic interest and thus deprives the songs of any emotional pull.

Faced with the limitations of his voice and of his skills as a lyricist, Wakeford would be well advised to drop the in-your-face singer/songwriter approach in favour of something more abstract and impressionistic. For his current approach is riven with contradictions: he believes that he portrays the world as it really is, stripped of modern artifice, yet he cannot see that this pose is as much an artificial construct as any other.

Sally Doherty, whose backing vocals are by far the best thing about Trieste, makes the sensible decision to go it alone on Sleepy Memory. In fact the album was released in 1998 but has only now gained a full release via World Serpent. It’s a beguiling and impressive piece of work; Doherty’s oddly pure, affecting voice draws in the listener with a series of short, highly emotive lyric outpourings. The words speak plaintively of love, loss and memory, backed by a wide range of sensitive acoustic instrumentation. Nor is Doherty afraid to tackle more challenging song structures, as on ‘Chant’.

This album would be more at home on 4AD than World Serpent: there are strong echoes of Dead Can Dance’s more pastoral moments, and Doherty’s vocals are very reminiscent of His Name Is Alive’s Karin Oliver. But Sleepy Memory is in no way derivative. Rather, its restrained elegance is evidence of a highly original and distinctive talent.

(Originally published in The Sound Projector 8, 2000)