In the year of 1691, Mr Robert Kirk, Minister at Aberfoil, produced the book “The Secret Commonwealth of Elves, Fauns & Fairies – A Study in Folk-Lore & Psychical Research”, seeking to describe the citizens of what might be called the spiritual underworld, and their methods of interaction with the physical world. The work was not officially published until the early 19th century; however in this digital age it is easily discoverable, although the writing style is very much of its time and requires particular concentration to penetrate.
Late in the year of 2012, Cold Spring Records issued the third in their Dark Britannica series of compilation CDs, ‘Hail Be You Sovereigns, Lief & Dear.’ Its aim is perhaps a musical equivalent to Kirk’s book – to find contemporary artists who explore and bring to the surface songs whose themes, both lyrically and musically, focus on the darker aspects of existence that many prefer to pretend don’t exist. It is no surprise then that one of the thirty tracks spread over two discs is a recitation, “Of The Subterranean Inhabitants”, the first chapter of The Secret Commonwealth, with new music by the composer Andrew King.
With instrumentation comprising harmonium and drones, and King’s authoritative reading, the effect is not only suitable to its own subject matter, but also leads to the thought that perhaps the entire package is almost a soundtrack for the “subterranean inhabitants” themselves.
“These Siths, or Fairies, they call Sleagh Maith,
or the Good People, it would seem, to prevent
the point of their ill Attempts,
(for the Irish use to bless all they fear Harm of;)
and are said to be of a middle Nature
betwixt Man and Angel,
as were Demons thought to be of old.”
But how does one define “dark” anyway? Is it something to be shunned, something to shine a light on (out of curiosity if nothing else) or something that – and ye harm none – can be enjoyed on its own merits?
Taking “Hail Be You Sovereigns” as the centrepiece, it is quickly noted that the feel of many songs can be described as brooding, mysterious – even ominous in places. But at no point is it gloomy or depressing. Quite the opposite – the very aspects that can be taken as negative or “subterranean” are often those which are the most involving, intriguing and in a way, life affirming. (It’s probably also stating the obvious to say such themes have been a mainstay of British traditional music for centuries.) It’s at this point that the difference between the light and dark becomes pleasantly indistinct.
Not that all the tracks on this set were written long ago. In fact, the majority are originals, showing that the appetite for dark Britannica and indeed the art of storytelling has not waned over the ages. The “trad arr’s” include Venereum Arvum’s A Diamond In My Eye (AKA The Wedding Song), which is more a tale of near-deserted love; instruments include harmonium, and a whirling karadeniz kemençe (bottle-shaped bowed lute from Turkey) giving an otherworldly feel, along with the effective use of drones. Another traditional piece is ‘Moonshiners’, by Nathaniel Robin Mann, which my notes describe as “comparatively jolly but not entirely comfortable”!
Regardless as to any item’s ancestry, ancient or modern, the shared timelessness of the music gives the listener much to explore, requiring repeated listenings to do so. There is a good deal of diversity of styles within the set, encompassing acoustic, electronic, folk rock, soundscapes and more.
The previously mentioned notes I made, on about the third listen to the entire set, might help to give a greater picture of the commonalities and differences found among the various songs.
The opening track, ‘The Willows’ By The Hare & The Moon: “Dramatic, instrumental. Slight discordant, slightly uneasy” leads into The Lonely Willow by The Elder Tree, described as: “a reverse murder ballad.” Fiddle lead & backing with acoustic guitar & subtle drumming. Very effective version.”
The first Foxpockets track ‘Twelve Sisters’ grabbed me as “twisted circus music” while their ‘Widow’s Walk’ was similarly noted as “a jolly death march; a dual suicide ballad.”
Getting the idea? Along the way, the band Mary Jane provides some melodic and catchy folk rock on ‘Wherever She Goes’. A few tracks feature harmonium and/or hurdy gurdy to provide a certain otherworldly feel. For example, the Xenis Emputae Travelling Band contribution ‘Littlebeck Trisagion’ earned the description “ethereal vocals and harmonium herald a mysterious sound – not sure where it takes the listener but it’s an intriguing place. Sorry it has to end”, while ‘Frenetique’ by Woodwose has a medieval / Dead Can Dance kind of sound, aided by its own use of hurdy gurdy.
A few tracks’ use of acoustic guitar earn them a comparison to Jansch and Renbourn, and Heed The Thunder’s ‘Easter Tree’ shows that an acoustic instrument as lead does not preclude it from the sense of foreboding and drama, in what is a captivating track altogether.
Other notable pieces include The Transmutations’ ‘The Bramble Briar’ (“an ominous start and almost gloating vocals telling of murder, could be the soundtrack to a horror movie, almost Nick Cave-like”) and Thornland’s ‘Ancient Trees and Fractured Spines’ (“mysterious, the space in the music as integral as the notes, monk-like vocals though not overly melodic, sort of acoustic heavy metal.)
And so it continues. Both CDs end with lengthy, ten minute-plus pieces that gradually build in their own ways. The final item, ‘Hymns & Ghosts Pt 2’ by Lost Harbours receives the comments “brooding – wordless vocals, like a soundscape of one of the subterranean places mentioned in the recitation”, which brings us full circle to the original thoughts regarding this excellent compilation.
I’m loath to say any one track is better or worse than any other, as this is special music that is designed to affect the listener in deep and personal ways, if they allow it. So it’s too much of an individual journey for me to suggest which way it should go, apart from providing some sort of signposting!
On a more factual level, the length of notes for each track in the booklet varies from minimal to quite comprehensive, generally including the names of band members, a bit of song history and contact details / web page. No photos are included, unfortunately. ‘Hail Be You Sovereigns, Lief & Dear’ is not light listening, but it is rewarding on various levels and indeed a welcome reminder of the importance of music as a vehicle to deeper levels of the self, in an entirely painless and absorbing way.