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VARIOUS John Barleycorn Reborn: Rebirth CD (Cold Spring)

Cold Spring, a label more often associated with extreme industrial noise and suchlike, has over the last couple of years diversified into folk and folk-inspired music with its series of Dark Britannica compilations. The first two, John Barleycorn Reborn and We Bring You A King With A Head Of Gold, were reviewed in the previous issue of Aquamarine. When compiling John Barleycorn Reborn, the label received more submissions than would fit on the original 2 CD set. The remaining tracks were previously issued as a download-only release, but for a number of reasons, the label made the wise choice of reissuing these extra tracks as a proper CD album, the tracks again being spread across two CDs.

Magpiety have a twin female voice acapella rendition of the traditional song The Rolling of the Stones, which is very beautiful. The Story comprise Martin Welham of 60s band Forest, and his son Tom. Forest were exposed to a new audience via the psych-folk compilation album Gather in the Mushrooms, with their superb contribution Graveyard. The Story's track here, All Hallow's Eve, is equally impressive psych-folk, including a very nice medieval-flavoured instrumental interlude. Telling the Bees combine folk and classical influences with intelligent, poetic lyrics in their well-crafted track Wood, which traces the making of a mandolin from its origins as a tree.

Yealand Redmayne make gentle minimalistic folk music. Charlotte Greig and Johan Asherton's The Bold Fisherman is set to a mixture of guitar and gently pulsing electronics. Steve Tyler is associated with a number of ensembles with a basis in early music: Misericordia, The Wendigo, and Daughters of Elvin, all of whom also appear on this compilation. His solo track here has rather a proggy touch about it, in addition to the early music aspects. The Wendigo make instrumental folk dance music with a strong early music influence heard in the use of instruments such as hurdy-gurdy. It is no ultra-strict reconstruction of early music however, adding more recent folk instruments such as melodeon. In their track here they utilise a bagpipe drone and eerie whistling wind sound effects for a spooky dark ambient effect.

The Owl Service are primarily known as an electric folk band in the spirit of the 70s folk revival, but here they contribute a subdued and atmospheric piano instrumental with snippets of dialogue from Tigon Studio films from the 1960s. Two or so minutes into the track it changes direction somewhat, with the addition of beats and synth, courtesy I would think of remixer RAF. Far Black Furlong contribute a swelling, evocative soundscape combined with an ethereal woodwind melody, adding bits of hurdy-gurdy that function more as sound effect than musical instrument. The track's overall connection to actual folk music is tangential, yet it fits in well with the overall theme of the album. Sedayne provides an experimental yet melodic folk instrumental that is both eerie and hypnotic. The Straw Bear Band includes amongst its lineup Dominic Cooper and Steven Collins of The Owl Service. Their piece here is excellent contemporary folk, driven by guitars, sitar and glockenspiel, with a lyrical theme based on the folkloric figure known as the Bargest.

The Dark Britannica series is, as its name implies, meant to focus on the underground music of Britain. The compilers had not realised at the time that Novemthree was based in the USA, so included two tracks from this project of one Pythagamus Marshall. Scythe to the Grass combines melodic guitar and ambient droning in a similar way to post-rock bands, yet its musical inspiration and overall sound is far more rooted in folk music. The second Novemthree track, Harvest Dance, is a superb psych-folk instrumental, both hypnotic and ecstatic.

Paul Newman is a singer-songwriter whose pagan spirituality is a major part of his music. His song here is highly evocative of the English landscape and the spiritual inspiration one can gain from being immersed in nature. James Reid appears with two minimalistic acoustic songs. The first is a melancholic number much in the spirit of Nick Drake. Nick Drake's name is used a lot as journalistic shorthand for any sort of pained, introspective music with an acoustic guitar in it, whether it actually sounds like Nick Drake or not, but the type of songwriting displayed in this song of James Reid's shows the two songwriters are very much on the same page. The second of Reid's tracks is a contemporary singer-songwriter piece, celebratory and nature-based in tone.

jefvTaon was formerly the singer and guitarist in 1980s Detroit-based band Viv Akauldren. He subsequently relocated to Berlin, releasing two albums as Jeff Tarlton. Returning to Detroit, he began recording again as jefvTaon. Unless he has connections with Britain not mentioned in the sleeve notes, it would appear he is one of two US artists to appear on this primarily British compilation. His track here is a minimalistic singer-songwriter piece with strong psychedelic undercurrents. Wooden Spoon blends a banjo melody inspired by the rawer, less commercial side of country music with a guitar melody more reminiscent of the 60s/70s British folk revival. The Big Eyes Family Players provide an experimental/psychedelic/post-rock instrumental. Its links to folk music seem pretty tenuous, but its slightly surreal, dreamlike atmosphere again fits in well with the general feel of the album.

Sundog offers an improvisational piece based around khomus, the Siberian version of the Jew's harp. The track also stars vocals, bells, footsteps and creaking church door. It is probably the most abstract track on the album. Northumbrian singer Clive Powell performs traditional songs from his local area, but with a difference. His Ca the Horse, Me Marra is accompanied by an avant garde collection of bells, gongs and random metallic clangings, going on for over 11 minutes. Following on from these two bizarre tracks is one of the most traditional. Mac Henderson of Grand Union Morris sings an unaccompanied ode to the folkloric figure of Jack in the Green, which sounds authentically traditional in terms of lyrics, melody and performance.

Alan Trench is one of the founding figures of experimental folk, having previously run World Serpent Distribution. He has a number of his own musical projects on the go, three of which are featured here. Cunnan also includes Tracy Jeffery (Orchis, SQE), Stephen Robinson (The Beloved, Patrick, Bug, Temple Music), and Christopher Patinios whose musical background is in DJing. Here, a very enjoyable guitar-based folk-pop number is combined with experimental ambient music, post-rock touches, and birdsong. The piece is of an epic nature, lasting for almost 12 minutes. Orchis is, I believe, the longest running of Alan Trench's bands, having existed since the 1990s. In their track here, icy cold ambient sound effects provide the backdrop for an alternative folk song both dark and psychedelic. The third of Alan Trench's bands featured here is Twelve Thousand Days, which also features Martyn Bates of Eyeless in Gaza. Their track here is a melancholic alternative folk piece with psychedelic undercurrents.

Mary Jane are a band I've been aware of since the 90s. I tend to associate them with electric folk inspired by the 70s folk revival, but here they provide an unaccompanied rendition of When I Was In My Prime, featuring twin female vocals. To begin with, Jo Quinn and Gillie Hotston each sing a verse in turn, then later their voices merge for some very beautiful harmony work. Daughters of Elvin play superb medieval music on authentic instruments such as hurdy-gurdy and crumhorn. Misericordia appear with a dulcimer/bagpipe/hurdy-gurdy based medieval tune which whilst being drawn from tradition also has a mesmerising quality to it which is much in the spirit of modern atmospheric drone-based music. Venereum Arvum set Child Ballad 102 to a hypnotic atmospheric soundscape. The Anvil also provide an experimental soundscape as backdrop for the well known traditional song John Barleycorn. Sunshine Coding appear with a very brief DIY electronica piece with scratchy worn-out vinyl sounds in the background. Its mood is happy-go-lucky yet with an underlying tinge of sadness, and works very well as what it was intended to be, "an imagined soundtrack for a mythical 1970s children's TV show".

Purists will probably be appalled at the compilers' decision to include experimental, improvisational and just plain weird interpretations of folk music, but as strange as it may initially seem to some, this approach is actually much in tune with the spirit of the folk tradition. Traditional folk music changes and evolves as it passes on by word of mouth, and has thus always had an element of improvisation and personal interpretation about it. As for weirdness, that can be found by the shedload in the authentic folk tradition, with its spooky supernatural ballads and bizarre ritual dramas. For those who are willing to think outside the box when it comes to folk music, there is a lot to like here. Available from www.coldspring.co.uk


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Text Kim Harten, 2011.