Wednesday, 5 November 2014

Folklore Tapes Calendar Customs I: Fore Hallowe'en

The latest release from the Folklore Tapes folk (the Devon prefix dropped as they search further afield), Fore Hallowe’en, finds them taking a new direction, recalibrating the co-ordinates. Previous recordings have focussed on the stories and atmospheres which suffuse particular places and areas, lending them that indefinable sense of magic and sacred presence. Fore Hallowe’en (a title to file alongside Sandy Denny’s After Halloween) marks the beginning of a new venture, resetting the co-ordinates for time rather than space. It’s the first in a proposed series ordered under the title Calendar Customs, which will investigate the ritual observances, customs and moods of seasonal festivals and sacred days. Calendar Customs 1 guides us through one of the most powerful and atmospheric of these periods, the smoke-wreathed and cinnamon-scented days of Hallowtide. The ten artists who contribute to the compilation unearth and re-animate the spirits of the Celtic festival of Samhain, the foundation upon which Halloween and the All Saints and Souls days of the Christian period have been erected.

As with most cultural and spiritual transitions, there is no sudden and absolute transformation. Rather there is an evolution which leaves many elements of the beliefs and customs which have ostensibly been incorporated, co-opted and supplanted intact. It was a subtle evangelising tactic on the part of the early church in Britain to absorb and recalibrate rather than confront and destroy a deeply ingrained worldview and the long-observed rituals associated with it. Indeed, it was an approach specifically put forward in a letter from Pope Gregory to St Augustine in the late 6th century. He instructed the missionaries who were setting out to convert the Britons ‘do not pull down the temples. Destroy the idols, purify the temples with holy water, set relics there and let them become temples to the True God’. The aspect of this true God becomes subtly altered by what remains of the old ways, however. More localised and vernacular, reflecting aspects of the landscape and environment, and the culture which they shape. It inadvertently serves to illustrate the universal ground connecting all religions at some deep level, the common need for a sense of meaning and sacred presence in the world which they express. Britain my have gradually become nominally Christianised, but people’s lives still centred on the routines passages of the agricultural year. It was around these that celebrations and holy days of whatever doctrinal colour were moulded.

Samhain was a festival marking seasonal transition. The harvest had all been gathered in and it was now time to prepare for the encroaching cold and darkness of winter. In the Celtic calendar, this was the deathly start of the year, beginning at sunset (the inverted dawn of the Celtic day). It was tenebrous moment in which the world was less fixed and stable than usual, the boundaries more permeable. Supernatural forces were able to pass through with greater ease. The dead were available to commune with, and goblins, demons and witches were abroad, full of capricious or evil intent, determined to make the most of a night which lent them such potent license. It was brief interlude filled with fearful danger and intoxicating possibility. It is this spirit which the Folklore Tapes artists seek to evoke.

We begin at the end, with The Summons of Death. Ian Humberstone’s track opens with spectral winds, synth white-noise susurration from which shifting masses of Ligeti cloud voices coalesce. Glinting sounds in the background hint at something ghostly darting and swooping within the rushing currents of air. A faint, piping melody emerges, distant, haunting and half-heard. It’s both sinister and lulling, a lilting, swaying charm of a tune, leaving the listener hypnotised and rooted to the spot with rapt, immobile fascination. And then, a crashing upstruck chord on distorted guitar marks an appearance, a landing. IT’S THERE. Death has made its dramatic ‘boo!’ entrance from the smoke of a stage explosion. The soft piping melody is picked up on electric guitar (because Death is, like, heavy), the wah-wah fluctuations suggesting the beating of wings or the sharp swish of the scythe. Popping Casio percussion provides the bones of a skeletal rhythm, the carpal steps for a dance of death. This is something of a pantomime Reaper, a figure from a medieval pageant played out in the village square (or even in the graveyard of the parish church) rather than the saturnine chess-player of Bergman’s Seventh Seal. Sounds of flight at the end, the beat of displaced air, leave him winging his bony way into the night, the appointed soul harvested.

Magpahi's EP on Finders Keepers
The title of Magpahi’s Derwen Adwy’r Meirwon is Welsh for the oak at the gate of the dead. It’s the name given to a notable tree standing sentinel at the head of Adwy’r Beddau (the Pass of Graves). It bore arboreal witness to the Battle of Crogen in 1165, a triumphant day in the annals of Welsh history. It was here, beneath Castelh Crogen, that Prince Owen Gwynedd ambushed the cocksure army of Henry II and massacred them. The ancient oak is now fantastically distended with age, its bole bloated with layers of fungal growth. Magpahi (aka singer Alison Cooper) invokes the spirit of the oak in its dying days, taking on its voice and celebrating its longevity and the centuries of history (‘1004 winters’) to which have passed around it. The lyrics adopt the anthropomorphised perspective of the oak, portraying it as a sentient, self-aware being. The fragile, echoing vocals and circling acoustic guitar figure are tinted with small touches of instrumental colour: a breath of harmonium, a flutter of recorder, a passing buzz of bowed overtones and a scattered shower of percussive rain. It’s a sound which draws comparison to psych folk old and new, from Mellow Candle and Vashti Bunyan to Espers and Marissa Nadler. The melancholy beauty of the song recognises that the great oak’s days are nearing an end. ‘I’m splintered in two’ it laments, ‘branches next to dew’. For the ‘keeper of these gates’ it is ‘time to depart’. We hear those gates open with a rusty skreek like the scratching of branch against glass. The wordlessly crooned outro sounds like a mind wandering, fading away, language put aside for once and all. As with Ian Humberstone’s track, it ends with a departure. The dissipating ghost of the melody is something which will, perhaps, remain in the air as an aural haunting. The imprint of the spirit of place.

Snail Hunter’s Domnhuil Dhu has absolutely nothing to do with Sir Walter Scott’s famous poem Pibroch of Donuil Dhu, a misty-eyed bagpipe clarion call designed to stir the patriotic blood of the Scotsman It is far, far stranger than that. The title may offer some clue. It’s Gaelic for Black Donald, an old Highland nickname for the Devil. Such a familiar mode of address points to the common belief that the Devil and the pre-Christian supernatural beings from which his malevolent trickery descended were living amongst everyday folk. Only a few subtle, tell-tale signs distinguished them to the sharp-eyed observer, dispelling their veiling disguise.

Snail Hunter’s track is essentially an imaginary soundscape, a programmatic piece whose effects are prompts for pictures projected onto an inner screen. An intitial descending sprinkle of notes sounds like an arpeggio stroked from an omnichord, the 80s electronic autoharp which resembled a plastic artist’s easel. It’s a landing, a fade-in, or the drawing apart of a cinema curtain. It’s also vaguely reminiscent of the glittering descending chords punctuating the soundtrack of the 1970 Czech film Valerie and Her Week of Wonders, which alert us to moments of magical transformation and protective enchantment. The sense of cinematic scene-setting is furthered by the introduction of a late 70s high-pitched, ethereal synth drone à la Shine On You Crazy Diamond. We gain the impression of having passed into some otherplace, a territory adjacent to but at some remove from the mundane world.

Graculus - the friendly cormorant
Footsteps church through shingle. Then, in the distance, we hear a weird, choking gull squawk voice, which appears to be spitting out the words ‘what is this?’ in a tone of horrified disbelief. Is it a shape-shifter caught somewhere between human and avian form. Perhaps it is a cormorant, a bird which has amassed a good deal of folkloric associations over the ages. It is often seen as an embodiment of ravenous hunger and greed, largely due to its ability to gulp implausibly large fish down its gullet. It’s black plumage and habit of sunning itself with wings outstretched like a gothic cloak have inevitably led to comparisons with the Devil. Milton makes such a simile in Paradise Lost. In a passage concerning the Devil’s winged travels he writes ‘up he flew, and on the tree of life,/The middle tree and highest there that grew,/Sat like a cormorant’. It has also been seen as a bird of ill omen, portending doom, often in the form of an oncoming storm at sea. It is associated with death, and there are Nordic myths which hold that fisherman drowned at sea can return home from time to time in the form of a cormorant. It’s importance in ancient folklore and mythology was recognised by Oliver Postgate, who made the loyal watchbird of Noggin the Nog, Graculus, a cormorant.

A sharp intake of breath in the aural foreground suggests that our point of view protagonist is taken aback by this apparition. It is something he has come across by chance, a strange spectacle which is both fascinating and alarming – and also potentially dangerous. Mellow synth fluting reminiscent of the music produced by Radiophonic Workshop composers Peter Howell and Roger Limb for early 80s Doctor Who whistles in the background, maintaining the otherworldly ambience. As the bird voice grows more prominent in the sound spectrum and we creep nearer to whatever is making these guttural utterances, we also hear the break and recession of waves. We are on a shoreline, then. The cormorant (let’s for the sake of argument assume this is what it is for now) repeats its three words pained bewilderment. Has it become suspended halfway between a magical transformation from man to bird? It seems to be choking something (there are those associations with gluttony). Has it been poisoned? Or caught its gullet on a fish hook and line? Or is it spewing up oil from a slick it got washed up with? I have a picture in my mind, but I won’t reproduce it for you. It’s for each listener to discover their own mental movie. Our POV character, having approached nearer and nearer with a stalker’s stealth, now reveals himself. No longer fearful, he bursts into harsh peals of cruel laughter, a devilish guffaw. It’s the self-delighting mirth of the villain at the point of triumph, when he realises that his evil masterplan has been realised to the last detail. Perhaps he was a huntsman all along, the birdman his prey. The subliminal background atmospheres suddenly explode into a wild electronic bacchanal, a frenzied and violent freak out of blurting, distorted synth. There’s a furious sloshing of water, as if something is being held beneath the surface and is thrashing about, desperately trying to get free. And then all is calm again. Whatever has been done has been done. Perhaps the cormorant’s power has been appropriated, absorbed. We end with an ascending chord, the mirror of the descending chord with which we started. The curtain is closing, the scene fading out – or it may be an ascent and another flight.

More watery shoreline sounds set the scene for Eva Bowan’s Aos Sí. The Sí are perhaps better know as the sidhe or the shee, the supernatural fairy race in Irish and Scottish folklore and mythology. The shoreline atmospheres and subaquatic compression of sound suggest that we may be encountering a selkie, the mythological Celtic and Gaelic creatures who transform from seal into human form when they leave the sea (a sort of wereseal in effect). Unstable, wavering arpeggios evoke the bob and sway of oceanic swell. A girlish voice whispers half-decipherable lyrics in a high Bjorkish register. It is dispersed in blurry ripples of phased and floating reverberation. Foggy guitar chimes sound like a narcotised version of Robin Guthrie’s hazy Cocteau Twins chords. The whole song passes in a slow dazed drift, heavy-lidded and somnolent. The voice becomes progressively more processed until it is just another element in the dreamy soundscape; the selkie gradually divests itself of all traces of the human side of its nature. It becomes submerged in the harmonic drone of the sea from which it briefly arose, until we begin to wonder whether we really heart it at all. A few sounds at the end conjure one last picture. Steps on the shingle, bells calling the watcher back inland, waking him from his reverie, and the ever-present wind which, if you listen carefully, might still carry the faint voices of the siren singers.

The cold wind blows into the next track, sometime Clinic duo Carl Turney and Brian Campbell’s Punkie Night. There’s a thoughtful continuity in this connectivity of atmospheric weather conditions which makes for a satisfying whole. It gives the impression of a journey, with magically instantaneous transitions from place to place, granting a multiplex perspective on this special night. It’s like a sonic equivalent of Ray Bradbury’s novel The Halloween Tree, in which a group of children take a supernatural flight across the world to learn about the varied traditions of Hallow’s Eve and the Day of the Dead. One of these, Punkie Night, is particularly prevalent in Somerset. Children march through villages or towns carrying lanterns made from pumpkins or mangel-wurzels, sometimes following a cart on which the punkie king and queen ride. They sing the punkie song as they go along: ‘It’s punkie night tonight, it’s punkie night tonight. Adam and Eve would not believe it’s punkie night tonight’. The lanterns, with their grotesque carved faces, were supposed to ward off evil spirits, but can often seem to gather them together instead, their fiery glow transforming children’s faces into flickering shadow-masks with mischievous goblin grins.

The wind whistles in the chilling pitch it is constricted to when blowing through the cracks in doors and windows, or fluting down the long flue of the chimney. A struck match reinforces the impression of a stark, bare interior, now lit by candle or rushlight. Choral synth voices flowing up and down hint at aethereal spirits abroad in the windblown night. A children’s chorus begins to chant the punkie night song. It’s a repetitive and banally declamatory refrain which seems to grow stranger with every re-iteration. An eerie resonance gradually envelops the words until they become spatially ambivalent. Are the chanting children still outside or have they somehow gained access to the domestic interior? Or, more terrifyingly yet, have they taken up residence in the intimate, private spaces within the skull? Ritualistic, tub-thumping drums beat out a hopping and leaping processional, which is joined by a rolling melody. Low metallic harpsicord hammers and repetitive folk techno patterns bring to mind the occult electronica of The Haxan Cloak, or Pye Corner Audio in certain moods, with a similar indebtedness to horror movie scores. Rising, gliding notes in the background conjure images of lines of floating punkie heads bobbing along, angular eyes and serrated grins aglow with fluttering candlelight. The synth choir of strange angels comes soaring back in, and we have the sense of a great assembly coming together. A colourful village custom being enacted for another year, or something less innocent? Once more, we are left with the wind whistling its chill tones through the cracks in the doors and windows, the procession receding into the distance outside. But is there anyone left inside, or is the room now empty, its gathering shadows dimly held at bay by the dwindling stub of a sputtering candle?

Such troubling speculations are dispelled by the clatter of junkyard rhythms as the Taskmaster, Trickster, Troublemaker of Bokins’ track takes to the makeshift stage. This dancing, skeletal percussion brings to mind Tom Waits’ Bone Machine. Clicking spoons and clanking iron, shaken bunches of keys and rattled tins full of dried beans provide the dry, jerky moves for a bony reel. A guitar adds a disjointed melody, phased effects giving it a broken, hesitant flow. Strummed intervals give it the sound of a spirit-possessed Appalachian dulcimer at times, lending a folkish aspect to the grim merriment. A hobo ghost dance around a fire some way from the mountain trail, perhaps, glimpsed peripherally by the weary traveller. A few synth blurbs are added to heighten the sense of the uncanny. The analogue synthesiser is definitely the chosen means through which to evoke the supernatural on Calendar Customs I, and has proved adept at doing so in many other contexts too. A babble of voices becomes vaguely audible, pouring forth a chittering, half-human burst of goblin scat. Then there is a change in register. A sinister drone shrouds all sound, somewhat in the misty mould of John Carpenter’s score for The Fog. It’s a ‘something inexorably approaches’ drone. We hear clanking, hammering, rusty creaking and the actinic glint of sparking metal. Some dread forge or unholy workshop, perhaps. The track ends before we are able fully to divine the nature of this infernal space.

Children of Alice are a trio bringing together James Cargill and old Broadcast compatriot Roj Stevens with Julian House, Ghost Box co-founder, graphic designer and artist (under the guise of The Focus Group). This is an incredibly exciting venture for fans of Broadcast, amongst whom I unhesitatingly number myself, suggesting as it does a new post-Broadcast direction. Their debut piece, The Harbinger of Spring, was released on Folklore Tapes V – Ornithology last year. Something of the same concrete collaging which the characterised the Broadcast and Focus Group collaboration Witch Cults of the Radio Age is used to delineate the strange dimensions of the Liminal Space (the edgeland or interzone), their track on Calendar Customs. It begins with a tuning in, a crackling sweep across the frequencies until the desired wavelength has been fixed. A trundling, ratcheting rotation suggests motion, as does the plodding, pedestrian bass pacing which lopes alongside it. Fragments of fluting synth melody paint impressionistic glimpses of the passing world. These are low key sounds, soft and muffled, their origins obscure. They seem to be coming from somewhere else – the liminal space. Through one of the jump cuts and aural transmutations which were a feature of Harbinger of Spring, the wheel is displaced by a watery trickle. Perhaps it was a waterwheel all along. It’s a gentle, liquid sound which also seems to carry the faint murmur of voices. This sense of voices emerging from and merging with natural sounds is a characteristic of the Calendar Customs compilation as a whole.

We hear some kind of clicking and ratcheting clockwork machinery. It’s the kind of complex, interlocking polyrhythmic patterning which ran through Roj Steven’s Ghost Box album The Transactional Dharma of Roj. Are we inside the mechanism of a large clock, like the one which features in Valerie and Her Week of Wonders? The Children of Alice, individually and collectively, are expert at transporting us through a progression of discrete spaces and states. It’s the equivalent of an aural psychedelic trip, something which Broadcast singer and writer Trish Keenan used to talk about. We hear the opening melody and the trundling rotation again. It feels different in the context of what we have heard since. Could it be a strange music box turned by a small handle? The piece is anchored and given structure by these repetitions, lent variety and contrast by the juxtaposition of different sound blocks. A coconut clopping once more gives the impression of movement – the horse pulling the cart whose uneven roll we have been listening to, perhaps. Backward vocals are slowed and processed until they are no longer recognisably human. They become part of the general ambience, the hum of the aether, tuned out. This music which is all about transformation and transition. The wheel keeps on turning, but it’s travelling in no readily identifiable direction. It is non-spatial motion – a temporal rotation, fitting for this new calendrical Folklore Tapes venture. And then, suddenly, it stops.

Mary Stark’s Nos (Us?) creates a sound picture of a huge, resonant space – a cavern, perhaps. It is filled with the scuttle and stridulation of insects and the call and fluttering flight of birds. Some stertorous breathing and sighing suggests a living presence; The case itself as a womb filled with life. Bat squeak and pizzicato droplets add further detail to the scenario. The swell of an organ drone, which has the overtone shimmer of church bells heard from within the nave, gives this the feel of a sacred space. And then the echoing, compressed resonance, which has mapped out a confined interior, is gone. We are in the open air, the birds still singing. They have made the transition between states. There’s a sense of relief, of horizons expanding and light flooding in. It’s as if we have arrived at some illuminating conceptual breakthrough, one which has finally allowed us to walk out of the Platonic cave.

David Orphan’s La Mas Ubhal (Quinque Sect) refers to a drink which mixes spiced ale, cider and roasted apples. Sometimes referred to as lamb’s wool, it was made for the old Irish feast of apple gathering, which used to take place on All Hallow’s Eve. Quinque Sect means, roughly, The Fifth Way. The track begins with roughly bowed notes, scratchy and coarse. The apples being peeled, perhaps. The piece as a whole has something of the feel of free improv, with the kind of small, discrete sounds which AMM or the Art Ensemble of Chicago used to deploy. Warm analogue synth notes are introduced, full and rich, adjusted to give off a flickering vibrato shimmer. This is the solar sound of a fire burning steadily and comfortingly in the grate. More small instrumental noises suggest quietly purposeful activity: The tracery of a thin, synth oboe-like pattern of notes (a tendril of cinnamon scent curling from the pot, Bisto-style), a slack jazz bass twang and an electric bass riff. Bowed overtones glint into the shadows, and there’s a strange trumpeting, some beast emerging or maybe just stomachs rumbling. The electric bass takes up a Fog ‘something’s getting nearer’ riff – four beats with the first strongly emphasised (DUHN, duhn duhn duhn). We hear a coalescence of voices, half chanting, half gasping (they want some of the mas ubhal, and now). A slithering, shuffling approach with sweeping guitar effects hinting at something uncanny in the air. A chanting voice is abruptly cut off. The Quinque Sect is never revealed to us. Perhaps it is a mercy.

Rob St John finishes the Calendar Customs survey with a lovely instrumental piece, Old Growth, which is full of wistful seasonal melancholy. Descending chords are picked out on a classical guitar which sounds like a lyre or Celtic harp. They are limned by delicate synth accompaniment, the mellow light of the late October sun. This descending sequence paints a picture of bronzed and yellowed leaves slowly spiralling to the ground. As the title suggests, it as an end, but also a beginning, making way for new growth in a new year. A blackbird sings its heavenly song, and further songlike synth notes are added to fill out the mantric repetition of the underlying chords. It fades out on a long held chord, which encourages you to add you own humming drone to the autumn harmony.

It’s a beautiful, prayerful note on which to end a really fine and varied collection, which evokes, through means traditional and experimental (the two poles blending without any sense of contrivance or strain), this magical time of year in all its varied moods: beautiful and unsettling, dark and illuminated, wistful and impish, fearful and full of hope. The first exploration of Calendar Customs has produced riches and treasures aplenty. I look forward eagerly to further investigations.

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