An audio collage, built from sound fragments of many sources, some recorded in the open air, with piano and plaintive voice laid carefully on top.
That's more or less what I said on these pages a fortnight ago when reviewing Damon Albarn's Everyday Robots and, at the risk of repeating myself, it's what I'm saying again in regard to Benthic Lines by Dan Lyth And The Euphrates. Both count among the best albums I've heard this year but, sadly, industry realities dictate that only one of them will be in with a shout of a Mercury Prize nomination. Hint: it's not the one by a Dunfermline-based sound-designer-by-day, releasing his work on a small non-London label.
Not that Benthic Lines lacks anything in artistry or ambition. It's an unusually complete creative project that plays elements of the deluxe booklet and CD/download against each other, from Matthew Cusick's cover artwork, featuring a host of angels emerging from a snowstorm above the ice-cool colours of a receding landscape, to the 'making of' photos that document the recording process, to Craig Rennie's metaphysically unsettling short story, Already Here, that accompanies the song lyrics.
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Lyth was no less conceptual when he recorded the tracks outside the studio, spending four years assembling the necessary bits and pieces on four different continents. That's all admirable and impressive but, to appreciate the song, does the listener really need to know that the handclaps on Standing Start were recorded at an Equator marker in Western Uganda? Probably not, because what matters in the long term is that they quicken the pulse of the music when they enter on the chorus, raising the emotional urgency of the song. Each arty idea has a definite musical purpose.
Take the bowed glockenspiel, recorded al fresco in Kelvingrove Park, on album opener All My Love. It evokes a dreamworld, the immediate sense that we're entering some other dimension through an audible haar. It's an image reinforced by Lyth's lyrics ("Our street erased/Raised into clouds or lowered in waves/Either way the veil was close/And I had lost my sight") and the sparse instrumentation - single bowed cello notes, a flutter of accordion, delicate horns, the twitter of birdsong - so that a collage of mood is created where each individual element plays its part and the cumulative effect is quite breathtaking.
Lyth's music is surprisingly intimate for all its wide-open outdoor treatments.
There's a touch of Radiohead at their most melodic - jazz syncopation applied to the bedroom aesthetic - on Four Creatures, while Earth Broke Its Vow captures the lo-fi charm of Sufjan Stevens's chamber arrangements. This Time In November is the only track that could be said to take a traditional singer-songwriter route to its end.
And while there's a constant sense of elusive menace in the words - "monsters", "hidden creatures", "marksmen", "dragons" and "pestilent storms" haunt the phrases - the melodies themselves are utterly beguiling.
Even with no background knowledge of Lyth's working process, it's impossible not to be blown away by songwriting that is musically precise and emotionally expansive.