“Sometimes these are the best dreams I’ve ever had/Like a sparkle of crystals in the palm of my hand”. From the opening lines of Arborist’s third album, we are welcomed into a world observed from a different angle. Arborist, aka Mark McCambridge, began his live career by supporting James Yorkston and has never really looked back, following that impressive beginnings by touring with the likes of Cat Power, Low and Guy Garvey, as well as several headlining tours of his own. All that experience is poured into the making of An Endless Sequence of Dead Zeros.
Dreams are very much the central theme of Dead Zeros, with the music luring the listener into a dream-state whilst other topics touched include religion and death. The album was produced by the wonderful Matthew E. White in his Spacebomb Studios down in Richmond, Virginia and it has his fingerprints all over the record. It has been likened to the music of John Cale, and I can definitely see the comparison. The melodies get pushed to their limits, stretching out almost beyond the boundaries of what a song can be.
The lines at the beginning of this review come from ‘Dreaming in Another Language’, a spiralling and hypnotic six minute-plus journey which places you directly in the space you need to be for the remaining 34 minutes. Vocally, Belfast-born McCambridge is just fantastic. Plain, clear and concise at all times while the music swirls and dances around the lyrics – such as on the brilliant ‘Black Halo’ which is an exploration on how our bodies hold the trauma that they go through and is based on the book ‘The Body Keeps Score’ by Bessel van der Kolk, but set to a country backing which offsets lines like “It’s a poison that the body won’t release”.
Strings, brass and woodwind scores are added by Trey Pollard – who has worked with the likes of The Waterboys and Nadia Reid – and his work is one of the main draws for Arborist taking these songs to be recorded at Spacebomb Studios. The Spacebomb house band provide the rest of the backing, boasting musicians who have experienced recording with artists such as Sharon Van Etten, Bernard Butler, War On Drugs and kd lang. It was recorded over just eight days and you can sense that urgency in the songs. That desire to capture these songs before they disappeared into the ether.
‘O Margaret’ is a more folky tinged, simple song which once you realise it was written for his mother, helps you understand the overwhelming sense of deep love captured within the lyrics. It’s one of the starkest examples of how Pollard’s score helps flesh the songs into something bigger than the sum of their parts. ‘One Morning, Mid-November’ reminds me a little of Father John Misty and ‘Dewdrop, Cherry Oak’ tips its hat quite strongly towards Neil Young.
All roads lead to the meditative and mesmerising closer ‘Alabaster Skin’. A song written about the Belfast riots of 2021, Arborist is on record saying “the older, bitter generation stoking hatred in the young, only to realise that they are not of the same mentality, their minds have not been poisoned”. It closes with the lines “Honey, I’ve been dreaming of an awful rage/In another body, in another language” beautifully wrapping the whole album up in loop bringing you back to the opening song. It’s a cyclical element which shows how much care has gone into the making of Dead Zeros. It’s that attention to detail which will encourage the listener to repeatedly return and also mark their cards to wherever Arborist travels to next.