An introduction to the artists commonly linked to the relatively recent, but increasingly popular subgenre of wyrdfolk is long overdue, so it’s only fitting that the man who coined the term (the aforementioned Timothy Renner) should be one of the first to put his money where his mouth is (literally–Hand/Eye is his label)) and give us an overview of the many permutations that this style has spread around the world, represented on this two-disk set by tracks from Scandinavia (Sweden, Norway, Finland), Japan, England, Germany and the good old USA.
California’s Amps for Christ kick off volume one (Hand) with “False Night on the Road,” which contains some of the common ingredients present in many wyrdfolk songs: a simple melody, presented with elaborate (frequently homemade) instrumentation, that tells a tale, often from the survivor’s perspective, of murder, mayhem, unrequited love, regret, and loneliness – often all in the same song!
In Gowan Ring, one of the more prolific wyrdfolk artists, check in with “On the Butterfly’s Wing,” which explores another popular subject in wyrdfolk songs: man’s interaction with nature and the creatures that populate it. Again, the instrumentation makes subtle, but effective use of acoustic instruments, bells, and windchimes.
Sweden’s Peter Scion (nee Sjoblom) offers a bloody tale of murder and hanging, Sarada (one of Renner’s partners in his Snakeoil Jamboree side project) drops by for a lilting, acoustic ballad about the road less traveled (“The Darkest Path”); Alasdair Roberts’ “Willie-O” is a ghost tale, exploring the popular wyrdfolk subject of unrequited love traversing space and time with the one left behind encountering the one who has passed on to the other side.
The Iditarod combine acoustic guitar and violin for the gentle ballad, “The Rowan,” although at six minutes, it does tend to overstay its welcome. Renner dons the banjo for “The Blood of the Woven-Vine Divinity” from his own Stone Breath project. It sounds like his old mate, Prydwyn has joined in the festivities of a somewhat obtuse tale that seems to encompass the blood of Christ, sacred trees, and divine trinities. This track also illustrates another common thread weaving through many wyrdfolk tales: lyrics often borrowed from ancient texts – old murder ballads or folk tales–or current stories (that give the appearance that they’ve been co-opted from ancient stories) set in the midst of nature: trees, grass, brooks, squirrels, and chirping birds all populate the track.
Norwegian artist Filip (Ring) Andersen’s “The Sun is Behind” and Witch-Hunt’s “Two Magicians” brings magick into the equation, while Japanese cult heroes Acid Mothers Temple & the Melting Paraiso UFO give us “Le Satyre,” a haunting, droning, swirling miz-maze featuring an eerie vocal from Yoko Ono soundalike, Cotton Casino. Imagine sticking theremins, oscillators, and synths onto Ono’s “Mrs. Lennon” and your halfway home.
Prydwyn’s combination of riffs from Dylan’s “Buckets of Rain” and Lennon’s “John Sinclair” overshadows his “Hermit Song” to the point where I spent the entire song trying to come up with those “influences.” Perhaps now that I’ve done the legwork, the song will be more enjoyable on future listens, but I spent the entire time racking my brains, “where have I heard that riff before?” and failed to appreciate its charms first time through.
Germany’s Fit & Limo wrap up disk one with “Oh Sphinx,” which assembles sitars, bells, windchimes, wooden blocks, pump organs, and perhaps a dulcimer for a modern rendering of an ancient riddle. Let’s just say, never has the desert sounded so rustic.
Disk Two (Eye) begins, fittingly, with Eyeless in Gaza’s Martyn Bates regaling us with the fairytale of “Seven Yellow Gypsies,” perhaps the most daring track in the set, for it’s not everyday you hear a 7-minute a capella song. However, Bates is on familiar territory here, having recorded several volumes of “murder ballads” and, although I lost the plot somewhere along the way, the track is unique enough that I’ll probably be returning to see how it all turns out.
Finland’s Kemialliset Ystavat is a taste I haven’t acquired yet. Their omni-directional, improvisational acoustic jamming on “Leikattu Nurmikko” produces a sound that my head had as much difficulty understanding as my tongue did pronouncing, and I’ll resist the obvious temptation to slip into German to describe Drekka, and instead describe “In Tension” as a punny title that got a chuckle out of me, but the song is little more than a home recording of the participants stumbling around in the dark.
There’s wyrd…and then there’s “weird,” and Fursaxa’s “Porpoise Wings” is an unsettling example of the latter, although if porpoises could fly, who’s to say it wouldn’t sound like this combination of backwards electronics and chanted vocals delivered in a voice that sounds like Klaus Nomi on helium. Hiding behind the pseudonym Timothy the Revelator, Renner delivers the punny “Always All One, All Ways Alone.” His phased, distorted vocal repeats the title over heavily treated guitar and electronics until it becomes a tongue-twisted mantra.
We’ve discussed the work of Erik Wivinus above, and two of his other projects are represented here: Skye Klad and Salamander. Even though I would have sooner placed his other project, Gentle Tasaday into the wyrdfolk camp, Skye Klad has been known to rip off a raga or two in their day, and the haunting “Widdershins” brings tablas, acoustic guitars, tape loops, and moaning monks together for a spacey, supernatural soufflé of sounds. It took a few bars (musically and alcoholically) to recognize the rolling thunder of Salamander’s “Ghost Riders in The Sky.” [Yuppers, THAT one!] I would have preferred a little more oomph in the vocals, which take back seat to the instrumentation, but otherwise, the familiar tale of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse riding off into the sunset works surprisingly well in the context of the wyrdfolk oeuvre. And if Vaughan Monroe is turning over in his grave…well, all the better!
The mountains and backwoods of Virgina are home to Pelt, whose plucking and picking bring what sound like mandolins, banjos and the occasional guitar to the party. The instrumental “Actias Luna Chase, or Moth Navigations” is perfect for sitting in your backyard, staring wide-eyed at their free-form flight around the nearest streetlamp (the moths, that is, not Pelt, although…?) I mean, really, can you imagine ever getting anywhere if you had a moth at the navigational controls?!
Diana Obscura brings back fond memories of Lisa Gerrard and Dead Can Dance – always a good thing – and she is followed by another group not known for their wyrdfolk leanings, the psychedelic, instrumental combo SubArachnoid Space, who are represented here by their guitarist Mason Jones. “Can’t You See” features what I think is the first appearance of vocals on any of his creations in addition to the seemingly compulsory accoutrements of bells and wind chimes. Mason’s fluid guitar lines carry the song forward, yet he retains some traditional SAS trappings with brief squeals of guitar distortion placed strategically throughout.
As with any comp, there’ll be some tracks you’ll skip over, but if you’ve read about this new folk movement in my or anyone else’s reviews, or came across the term wyrdfolk in any of your readings, this is the best place to discover the myriad styles that are emerging the world over. And if this strikes your fancy as much as I think it will, you’ll definitely want to check out Mark Coyle’s wonderful new site, The Unbroken Circle, which is devoted entirely to the history, interpretation, analysis, and discussion of wyrdfolk in all its permutations.