With more than twenty musicians listed inside the sleeve, Function’s second official album, The Secret Miracle Fountain, is no small affair. Recorded over a nearly four-year period, the album was recorded in at least ten different countries and inevitably runs past the hour mark. Its cast contributes to sixteen tracks of ambient, folk and psychedelic rock, and when the songs don’t edge into overlong experimentalism, they’re sweeping, skyward epics, worthy of Olympic closing ceremonies or peyote snacks by the “fire spot” in the woods.
Australian Matthew Liam Nicholson is at the center of the world-traveling, face-changing Function. He’s performed a sold-out gig alongside ambient experimentalist Fennesz and has recently penned some film scores, but Function is his biggest project, and it probably emanates even more of a cinematic air than his soundtracks might. Made by a band with interchangeable members and a generally varying headcount, The Secret Miracle Fountain has its roots in Australia, Japan, England, the United States and Egypt, to name a few, with a generous amount of structured songwriting as well as atmospheric field-recording pieces.
Nicholson’s subtle relationship with nature underscores The Secret Miracle Fountain. From the crackling bonfire beginnings of opener “Beloved, Lost to Begin With” to its gentle sea-crest exit in “Thunder’s Freshwater Tears,” the multi-instrumentalist grows closer to the forest than whispering painter Bob Ross ever really got. Function’s wordless tracks are positively hallucinatory; they shimmer among some of the weaker rockers in the bunch. “Shards” is one such minimal electronic piece, a swirling array of drone and bansuri flutes, with help from John Wubbenhorst, Enrico Glerean and harpist Leah Fleischer. Its place on The Secret Miracle Fountain precedes a brief, similar-sounding sample collage, “Mad Light Obviating Things (Pt. I & Pt. II),” which is just as beautiful and opens the album’s momentous centerpiece.
“Hanalei (Alone With the Real Magic Dragon)” is also laden with nature, in birdsong and the buzz of harmoniums and violin combinations. Nicholson’s vocal, mimicking a melody commonly arranged on sitar, hearkens to Donovan’s pre-chatty productive years, but he is instead Spiritualized’s Jason Pierce here, at the writing and directing and arranging helm, propelling himself amid peaceful 1968 acid haze over a steady march pattern with backing harmonies and whirling strings. The female vocal contributions from Ruth Schoenheimer and Sarah Daly shine as brightly on this one as Clare Tuckley’s and Felicity Morgan’s do on the wandering “Beloved,” and all offerings are in sharp contrast to Nicholson’s earthy pipes. “Hanalei” is solid because it’s compact; it’s a balance of the album’s best, without the longer jam-type addendum.
Function’s The Secret Miracle Fountain chapter might have worked better as a two-disc set or a Time Life volume series that filtered its way into mailboxes one track at a time. With some of its noodling, it almost feels as long as a multi-sectioned mail delivery, but the stargazing pieces that sneak in between and bookend Function’s work are the pages worthy of rereading before committing to the shelf.
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