Richard Dawson & Circle: Henki review – Seeds of greatness

This brilliant, primeval collaboration takes as its muse the humble plant

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Artist: Richard Dawson & Circle
Genre: Rock
Label: Domino

Iron Maiden’s debut is one of Richard Dawson’s favourite records, which goes some way to describe why this collaboration with Circle feels like coming full circle. At the core of both there is “a primeval spirit” as Dawson has previously termed it – this spirit is what the album’s title, Henki, roughly translates as and what is cohesively conveyed over the course of seven songs. Circle meld genres as numerous as their albums, from krautrock and folk to metal and prog. It is an interesting underpinning for a collaboration with Dawson, whose own work is full of rigour and historical research, which drive his incredible vocals on.

Henki is an arresting album, seeing “the newness that was in every stale thing” to borrow from Patrick Kavanagh. Our muse is the humble plant, inspired by Circle guitarist Janne Westerlund’s request that everyone be more “like a plant” in recording. This set Dawson off on a voyage of flora discovery, where historical plants provide apposite context and rich material – harnessing a wonky look at climate change, ghost species and the realities of time and loss, making something artfully abstract as earthy as the soil the plants grew in, and that we will all in some way return to.

Cooksonia is a poignant piece, with Dawson narrating as botanist Isabel Cookson, with bass anchoring his soaring vocal. Ivy contains charging intertwining guitar riffs, an anthem taking in different traditions, Greek myths and the secrets of winemaking. Silphium is so clear-eyed, a 12-minute masterpiece, where guitars wrap themselves around Dawson’s vocal, melting into a prog breakdown as they search for one of the fennel family.

Silene’s delicate percussion complements its zig-zagging electronic flourishes, and Methuselah is so theatrical, full of guitar verve, metal screech and a juggernaut of synths that sound like they are chasing a holiness, as we are dragged around bogland to hillside, and the story of geographer Donald Currey and his search for the “oldest living bristlecones”, with Dawson’s assertion “I’m on the edge” sounding like something you might want to tilt towards.

Lily, with its moody vocals, driving guitars and glassy piano, details the ghostly visions Dawson’s mother experienced when she worked as a nurse. Pitcher, with its manic metal opening, is so free and yet eurythmic, something that this record is in totality. The absurd and serious wheeze that is being alive is so brilliantly explored here; how the life of a seed (as on Silene) can mirror our own lived experiences. It takes special artists to draw out emotional resonance from something that can seem so abstract.