Into Album Reviews: The Witching Tale. Wyndow. The Order Of The 12
Albums released at the end of the year often run the risk of being passed over. It’s always a tough time to release new music as so many ‘Best of Year’ lists have unfairly been drawn up already and a new album can easily be lost within this excitement. Most unfairly though, a late release schedule does not offer to a listener, or reviewer, the advantage those earlier releases have by allowing months of time for them to be properly appreciated, especially those more complex and thoughtful works that often require it.
I thought I’d draw attention to two of my favourite albums of 2021 that I nearly missed which I think deserve more recognition, as well as an incredibly beautiful one that has has only just arrived but I feel shares a certain kinship with them.
Artist: The Witching Tale – Katherine Blake and Michael J York
Album: The Witching Tale
Miranda Sex Garden are one of the best secrets of the UK’s pre-BritPop 90s independent music scene. A genuinely unique band who had the distinction of sounding like nobody else at the time, or since really. This is an often made claim but MSG’s first album, Madra was an undoubtedly perplexing collection of ‘a cappella’ medieval madrigals released to a world during the time of Nirvana’s Nevermind. Their subsequent albums featured a similar style of medieval vocals but now accompanied by a full backing band incorporating the supremely inventive Ben Golomstock on guitar that led them into proto-Post-Rock territory, Dario Argento-esque soundtracks and menacingly dark, Gothic Rock. All beautiful and all much looked-over that is often the way with innovation. Timing is everything in music.
MSG’s lead singer Katherine Blake is responsible for much of their uniqueness and in my opinion, responsible for much of the current reinvestigation of a good deal of Britain’s darker and traditional musical heritage which has slowly been opening up to a newer audience since the late 90’s with the popularising of the internet.
Of course, this was also an area that had been heavily explored years earlier by another select group of visionaries, as recounted in David Keegan’s epic England’s Hidden Reverse. It was a great surprise to learn that Katherine Blake’s latest collaboration was with one of those pioneers, the sublime and discerning Michael J York from Coil and Current 93.
This new group, The Witching Tale, is aptly named. On first inspection, it appears to take its cue from Blake’s post MSG group, Medieval Bæbes, and supplements her majestic voice with an intriguing mix of electro-acoustic instrumentation – from the traditional acoustic guitar to far more exotic sounds reminiscent of the Third Ear Band or Incredible String Band at their darkest. The modular synth arpeggios, blips and washes are an equally beautiful addition that help render a further sense of darkness, ritual and dread. It’s incredibly tastefully done.
It would be exceedingly unfair to compare this to The Wicker Man Soundtrack, something that is too easy to do for other works treading a similar path. I think it’s far more appropriate to suggest that the same sources were mined as Paul Giovanni used when he researched and realised his equally magnificent benchmark.
The words, references and sources for much of the lyrics used are a fascinating insight into this piece as they are in themselves and help paint the overall tonal picture: female Arabic poets from the 11th century, Edgar Allen Poe, ideas based on Tolkien, Sir Walter Scott and Charles Mackay as well as Blake and York themselves. Kelpies and unnatural endings feature heavily.
It’s a breathtakingly beautiful album that needs and demands work from the listener. Once you reach beyond the initial claustrophobia, you venture into a world of shimmering mirror-like pools of water, deep into the forest, lit by shards of moonlight.
The LP was released just before Christmas but is yet to come to CD. It will soon be available for purchase here – thewitchingtale.bandcamp.com
Artist: Wyndow – Lavinia Blackwall and Laura J Martin
Released shortly before The Witching Tale, Wyndow takes a far different approach but for me offers glimpses into the same mysterious world. Perhaps much of this viewpoint is due to one half of the duo’s earlier releases. Lavinia Blackwall came to my attention through her work with Trembling Bells and her recent and excellent solo work, Mugginton Lane End, that explored a lighter but equally beautiful area of Britain’s Folk Heritage.
This collaboration takes a poppier approach and introduces more modern instrumentation. This is no criticism, especially when the quality of the songs are so strong. To me there are wonderful touches of the whimsy of Kate Bush and even the top tier Folk-Prog of Mellow Candle and Trees, and of course, obvious nods to Robert Wyatt with the lovely cover of ‘Free Will And Testament’.
The lightness and bounce to this album is hugely welcome as it really does highlight the quality of the songs, production, warmth and charm within.
Wyndow play The Glad Cafe on 26 February, supported by equally excellent Snowgoose.
Twitter – @Wyndowmusic
The Order of the 12 – Lore of the Land
The Order of the 12 is Richard Norris, vocalist Rachel Thomas, and Stuart Carter with contributions from Richie Crago.
I think it will be hard to beat Lore of the Land as an album of the year and it’s still only February.
While distinctly its own, this captures the otherworldliness of Portishead’s Third whilst effortlessly punctuating this with the haunting and elemental drones of the first two Steeleye Span albums.
This is all so elegantly and refreshingly done, whilst still maintaining a sense of mysteriousness. It’s a henbane induced hypnogogia of stone circles, rituals, tree clusters and ravens, all melded together with crystalline production. It feels at once incredibly modern, but cleverly uses musical and lyrical references from the past to instantly feel part of the rich musical heritage of the hidden British Isles.
This is comedown music for some futuristic Techno-Sabat while waiting for the first rays of the golden dawn.
Lore of the Land is out now at Bandcamp: