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Stone Tape Recordings, run by Steven Collins of The Owl Service, is a prime source for folk music that looks to the past for inspiration whilst being open to creative innovation. I have a selection of their releases for review, starting with Hirta Songs by ALASDAIR ROBERTS & ROBIN ROBERTSON. Alasdair Roberts is a well known name in the alternative folk scene who has in more recent years gained acceptance from the established traditional folk community. Here he has joined up with Robin Robertson, an extensively published poet with several books out via Picador, whose trip to Hirta in the St Kilda archipelago in 2007 provided the inspiration for the album's lyrics. A number of guest musicians appear on the album, including amongst others harpist Corrina Hewat, who is known for her solo work and collaborations with Kathryn Tickell, and Robin Williamson of The Incredible String Band, who appears here playing Hardanger fiddle, a Norwegian fiddle with resonant sympathetic strings, which I am well acquainted with the sound of via my keen interest in Scandinavian folk music.

Alasdair Roberts sets Robin Robertson's poems to music, with melodies that sound authentically traditional. It was therefore no surprise to read in the sleeve notes that most of the tunes are in fact derived from traditional Gaelic songs. The one that isn't, The White Handled Knife, displays such a strong knowledge of the traditional idiom that it sounds completely at home alongside the other songs. Some tracks opt for a full band folk-rock arrangement whilst others are more subtle and stripped down. In addition to the songs with vocals from Alasdair Roberts, there are a couple of harp instrumentals with an atmospheric, dreamlike quality, and two poetry recitations from Robin Robertson, accompanied by solo harp. The poems are truly evocative, the words conjuring up the accompanying images in my mind's eye with sharp clarity. This is an outstanding album that is in keeping with folk tradition yet has a haunting, atmospheric beauty that comes from the musicians' own creative input.

Whereas Hirta Songs is a professionally produced album featuring some high profile artists, Stone Tape Recordings is a label that knows all about and embraces the DIY underground spirit, and in keeping with this also puts out CDRs with hand assembled sleeves. Such a release is Of the Storm by Irish band THE DRIFTWOOD MANOR, who combine Irish folk influences with aspects of American folk (Appalachian folk in particular would seem to be a major influence) and bleak, dark alternative folk. Tell Your Troubles to a Stone is an inventive piece, engagingly unpredictable on a number of levels. Following a series of starkly arranged songs based around banjo and/or mandolin, it initially surprises by unleashing its doom-laden electrified sounds upon us. The first three minutes consist of wordless vocals set to a harsh, distorted electric guitar melody, then it surprises yet again by abruptly transforming into a minimalistic acoustic song partway between dark folk and alt-country. Ceremony is a melancholic acoustic song referencing calling crows, "a graveyard full of bones", and other ominous imagery, with the effective addition of haunting flute. I Never Will Love Anymore shows the band's Irish, Appalachian and alt-folk influences coming together seamlessly in one track. Lyrical themes of suffering and sin pervade the album, adding an extra bleakness to the overall sound. Despite this, I don't find Of the Storm an uncomfortable listen. The songs have strong, memorable melodies and a willingness to break free from a narrow understanding of what folk music is.

Next up, Anointed Queen by FIREFAY & ALISON O'DONNELL. Alison O'Donnell first made a name for herself with Mellow Candle, formed in the mid 1960s when she was either 11 or 15 years old; online sources vary as to her age, but either way, very young! As Alison Williams she later formed Flibbertigibbet, a band I find to be unfairly overlooked, as to me they are up there with all the recognised greats of 1970s folk-rock. In more recent years Alison has made a couple of albums, the solo Hey Hey Hippy Witch, and with Isabel Ni ChuireŠin, Mise Agus Ise, and has collaborated with various alt-folk and psych-folk bands including The Owl Service, Dodson and Fogg, and United Bible Studies. Here she joins up with Firefay, a London-based band centred around Adam and Carole Bulewski. The end result is a superb collection of forward thinking and creative folk music that's among the most exciting albums I've heard in a while.

Living on the Concrete Path features a Middle Eastern-esque accordion melody and percussion as backdrop for an intelligent and artistic folk-pop song. Night Spell is spookily beautiful medieval-inspired folk. Under the Church Tower blends Eastern European and English folk motifs with an eerie and psychedelic atmosphere. White Lilies is excellent electric folk in the 1970s tradition, diverging down a dreamlike, atmospheric psychedelic route near the end. Hart Fell is an inventive mixture of Eastern European and Spanish folk, retro-futuristic synth music, and sophisticated folk-pop. Come All Ye Malcontents has a big dramatic sound combining folk with prog rock. Strawberry Wine sets evocative supernatural lyrics to a rousing traditional-style folk tune with experimental psychedelic touches. The End is the Beginning is an ambient piece based around brooding drones and vintage synths, which whilst having little in common with folk music fits in well with the psychedelic, atmospheric and otherworldly feel of many of the other tracks here. An absolutely amazing album.

YOU ARE WOLF is one of a number of projects of Kerry Andrew, also known for her work with Juice Vocal Ensemble, DOLLYman, and Metamorphic, as well as the experimental vocal/choral music composed under her own name. You Are Wolf's Hawk to the Hunting Gone is a concept album about the folklore of birds, its music being some of the most innovative and artistic adaptations of the folk tradition that I have ever heard. Cuckoo is a medley of two traditional songs, My Bonny Cuckoo and The Cuckoo, set to an innovative arrangement featuring human beatbox and other voice-as-instrument techniques. Swansong is an adaptation of the traditional song Molly Bawn, with avant garde neoclassical accompaniment and haunting choral backing vocals. Murmuration, which takes its name from a large group of starlings flying together in a twisting formation, is a spoken word piece accompanied by stark drones, pizzicato strings, and lilting clarinet that translates precisely into sound the visual image of starlings flying in such a manner.

Little Wren is by far the most original rendition of The Cutty Wren that I've ever heard, combining medievalesque recorder with electronica, distinctive and busy avant garde percussion, sombre classical strings, and that voice-as-instrument vocal style that is something of a trademark of the album. Doves is a medley of Prince's When Doves Cry and the traditional song Turtle Dove; I doubt such a pairing has ever been attempted before, but it actually works. Alasdair Roberts provides guest vocals, accompanied by experimental choral music and human beatbox. It's not often that I will hear a band who sound nothing at all like anyone else, or who are completely impossible to stick a genre label on, but here is an album that can genuinely be classed as unique. The classification of 'experimental folk' is not even sufficient to describe what is going on here. Kerry Andrew and her collaborators undoubtedly have a truly visionary approach to music.

GREANVINE is an offshoot of The Owl Service, comprising Steven Collins and Diana Collier, with additional vocals from Nancy Wallace. Their limited edition CDR Mark You That and Noat You Wel sold out very soon after I'd received my copy, though there is still a digital edition available via Bandcamp. Stone Tape are considering releasing a 2nd pressing of the CDR if there is enough demand for it - anyone interested in obtaining a copy should get in touch with them via their Bandcamp page. The music here brings together influences from late 60s and 70s electric folk and sounds with a darker, more experimental and psychedelic edge. The songs are drawn from a variety of sources, some you may expect, eg traditional and self-penned songs, those by Vashti Bunyan and Lal Waterson, and the Charles Wesley hymn Idumea which has been performed by other folk artists, and also some more surprising choices of cover versions of songs by Low, Yoko Ono, and even Iron Maiden! A recurring theme of winter and Christmas pops up throughout the album, though not all songs here share this subject matter.

There's a great version of the traditional song The Leaves of Life, set to atmospheric electronic accompaniment based around pulsating drones and spacey vintage synth. May Usher is a traditional-style song written by Diana Collier, arranged in a style reminiscent of The Owl Service. There's a very lovely version of Vashti Bunyan's Winter is Blue, featuring a minimalistic electric guitar arrangement, with keyboards adding extra texture to the chorus. Long Way Around the Sun, a Christmas song by Low, appears here as a brooding alt-folk piece with pulsing electronics and synthesised orchestration. The folk hymn Down in Yon Forest is given a dark experimental reinvention with monotone drone and rattlesnake-like percussion. Remember Tomorrow combines melancholic psych-folk with metally riffage that reminds you it was originally an Iron Maiden song. Yoko Ono's Listen The Snow Is Falling has the feel of a traditional American folk song, with electric band accompaniment. Another really great album from Stone Tape Recordings; hopefully they will re-press this as it deserves to be heard.

As well as CDs and CDRs, Stone Tape also put out 7" singles as part of their You Must Listen series. The generic die-cut sleeves add a common theme to the series, whilst the art inserts and band/artist photo postcards add a touch of individuality to each of the releases. The first single in the series is by CRAFTING FOR FOES, a duo comprising Adam Rees and Amanda McManus, who appear here with sparse and dark-edged psych-folk versions of traditional songs Greenwood Laddie and The Trees They Do Grow High. Greenwood Laddie is sung by Amanda, whilst The Trees They Do Grow High, told from the perspective of a woman betrothed to a young boy who dies in his teens, is sung by Adam. It seems unusual to hear these words being sung by a man, although other male folk singers have recorded the song in the past. NANCY WALLACE, previously known for her solo album Old Stories and her work with The Owl Service, contributes two of her own songs to the second part of this single series. The songs, You Restless Skylines and Pockets, are situated within the contemporary singer-songwriter genre whilst maintaining a link to the folk tradition. There is a melancholic beauty about You Restless Skylines in particular, and both songs are accompanied by Nancy's intricate and melodic guitar playing. Both singles, as with everything else I've heard from Stone Tape Recordings, are highly recommended.

So where is Stone Tape Recordings headed in the future? The good news is there are plans for a forthcoming Greanvine mini-album, but the bad news is that after this the label will cease to exist. I am very sorry to hear this as it has proved to be a consistently dependable source for innovative interpretations of folk music. I'm sure the artists will continue to find an outlet for their music, but nonetheless, Stone Tape Recordings will be missed. Get your orders in while you still can at stonetaperecordings.bandcamp.com


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Text © Kim Harten, 2014.