“…a glorious Phantom may
Burst to illumine our tempestuous day.”
– Percy Bysshe Shelley, “England in 1819”
When the Romantic poet Percy Shelley wrote “England in 1819,” the young radical was reeling — along with much of the rest of Liberal England — at the Peterloo Massacre, a sort of spiritual predecessor to the Kent State massacre in which armed cavalrymen charged into a raucous crowd agitating for parliamentary reform. Fifteen died and many more were wounded that day in Manchester, and Shelley lashed out against what he saw as a corrupt status quo presided over by King George III, whom Shelley decried (not inaccurately) as an “old, mad, blind, despised, and dying king.”
Baton Rouge band England in 1819 – who will be playing in Woodlawn at the Forge on Sunday, Jan. 19, touring in support of their September release Fireball Electric Tomorrow – don’t appear to have much of the same politically charged fire as Shelley. Instead, the “grandwave” band seems to have internalized much of that same Romantic discontent, creating a deeply emotional sturm und drang narrative of love and loss that plays out in hissing electronic drums and shimmering synths.
England in 1819 is the work of brothers Andrew and Dan Callaway. Originally from Athens, Georgia, the Callaways grew up in the English countryside, eventually studying composition and French horn, respectively, in college. When they struck out trying to make it in the classical music world, the Callaways then founded England in 1819 as a nine-piece chamber pop ensemble. When that fell through, they pared things down to their essentials, with Andrew handling synths and vocals and Dan picking up electronic drums, bass and, of course, French horn.
With all the iterations the band has gone through, it’s a pleasant surprise that their current sound has such a laser focus. The band’s synthetic atmospheres are sumptuous and cinematic, bringing the Drive or Blade Runner soundtracks to mind as readily as they do, say, Chvrches, Sigur Ros, or even Beach House. While not quite a synthpop band, England in 1819 strike an obliging, accessible balance between formless ambience and melodic song structure.
The Callaways’ formal training comes in handy when distinguishing their sound. Their music features plenty of grooves you could almost dance to, but it’s the subtle layers the brothers have worked in that really impress. Each part of each song, whether it’s Andrew’s haunting, mournful voice or tactically deployed French horn from Dan, is meticulously balanced and arranged. England in 1819 excel at establishing a mood, but it’s the nuanced craftsmanship that really sets them apart.
The moods that the brothers can create, it should be noted, really are something special. Songs like “Himmel” conjure up images of the foggy moors around the titular farmhouse in Wuthering Heights, spooky fields full of damp dreariness and lingering ghosts. At the same time, England in 1819’s Southern roots allow them to incorporate the Romantic overtones in the South’s history and character, even if the music itself sounds way more effete and urbane than anything you’d expect to hear playing in a Delta honky tonk.
Despite taking their name from a Shelley poem, the Romantic that the Callaways really call to mind is poor doomed John Keats. Like Keats, England in 1819 seem to have a passion for the beautiful things that’s weighted down by a sense of somber resignation. Their greatest tool for expressing that anxiety is Andrew Callaway’s voice, which at its finest recalls the pleading tones of OK Computer-era Thom Yorke and, at times, even Bryan Ferry. When the band’s tortured Romantic approach hits home, Callaway’s vocals sound like a ghostly plaint hovering amid a lush, ethereal sea of sound.
All things considered, it’s a good time to be making the kind of music England in 1819 are specializing in right now. With acts like Twin Shadow on the rise, there’s clearly a market for synth-tinged pop music – or pop-inflected synth music, in England in 1819’s case – that runs deeper than a passing ‘80s nostalgia. It’ll be interesting to see how the band’s studio-friendly atmospherics translate to a live show, but there’s every indication that this show’s attendees will be going to see a band poised for great things.
The Forge is located at 5505 1st Ave. N. England in 1819 are playing at 7 p.m. on Sunday, Jan. 19. Tickets are $7.