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VARIOUS ARTISTS - We Bring You A King With A Head Of Gold: Dark Britannica II double CD (Cold Spring)

Follow-up to the excellent compilation of underground folk music, John Barleycorn Reborn, that I enthused about earlier this issue. This sequel continues to illustrate the vibrancy and vitality of the current UK folk underground. It also has the bonus of including bands' contact details in the booklet, a detail that was omitted from John Barleycorn Reborn. Whilst a Google search turned up Myspace pages for various bands on John Barleycorn Reborn, not everyone is on Myspace, so including the bands' email addresses along with the album itself is a very helpful addition. Liner notes by Simon Collins poetically express pagan sentiments on harvests and the changing seasons, along with the very true observation that "Far from existing in some regressive hey-nonny-nonny Merrie England theme park reservation, folk music is actually more timeless and less prone to obsolescence than fashion-fixated pop". The music featured on these two CDs certainly demonstrates that.

Barron Brady are a duo consisting of Ros Brady and Si Barron; their Earthen Key is moving, minimalist folk of a very high standard. Laienda appear here with a two-part piece comprising a song backed only by percussion and a spirited folk dance tune. The Rowan Amber Mill provide a mesmerising psych-folk number, whilst Tony Wakeford (also of Sol Invictus) provides an eerie supernatural narrative backed by flute, wordless female vocals, drum rolls and experimental sound manipulation. Kate Harrison sets Arthurian lyrics to minimal flute instrumentation in a piece that is quite lo-fi and clearly homemade, but with high quality musicianship. Drohne provide a medieval-tinged piece in which hurdy-gurdy and cittern appear alongside rock guitar and drums, and lyrics based on the East Kent folk tradition of Hoodening.

Corncrow appear here with an excellent arrangement of the traditional song The Cutty Wren. Sproatly Smith contribute a bizarre but highly melodic piece sounding like 60s folk or sunshine pop performed by a motley collection of psychedelic, gothic and experimental musicians. Tinkerscuss appear here with an American song, Black Sarah, composed by Lorraine A Lee. Its melody is typical of American folk, but the arrangement is given a Middle Eastern feel as befitting its subject matter about an Egyptian serving girl. Cernunnos Rising make pagan folk with rich deep vocal tones and, unusually for this genre, synthesiser. Mama make impassioned folk music with gutsy, soulful vocals. Magicfolk make sophisticated folk-rock that combines ancient and modern imagery, punning the Green Man of folklore with the green man of pedestrian crossings. Wyrdstone makes instrumental folk with a fleshed-out sound that belies the fact that it is the work of just one musician. Emil Brynge, a Swedish musician based in London at the time of recording, provides a slightly off-centre folk-pop song with touches of country and Indian music. Kim Thompsett appears with a superb traditional-inspired song combining folk and early music, genres that often overlap anyway and are really to be seen as two sides of the same coin. Dragon Spirit and Touch the Earth both make acoustic pagan folk.

I was particularly pleased to learn that Philip Butler is on this compilation, seeing as it was me that recommended him to the label. I did so with some reservation, as I had only heard his first solo album at the time and wasn't entirely sure whether the particular brand of indie-folk represented by the bulk of that album would fit in completely with the overall feel of the compilation. Unbeknownst to me at the time however, Philip had recorded some other material with his partner Natasha Tranter, which I heard shortly afterwards on the album Stories for Emily (this and its predecessor having been reviewed earlier this issue), and found it to be more in tune with the type of folk music being showcased on the Dark Britannica series. Philip and Natasha's suitably eerie psych-folk murder ballad Jack the Mommet has been chosen for this compilation, and it fits right in.

Relig Oran do a great interpretation of the traditional song Ye Mariners All. Autumn Grieve makes a sophisticated kind of contemporary folk, featuring a fragile and delicate female vocal over an atmospheric blend of neoclassical, folk, and dreampop style washes of noise. Ian McKone provides a minimal acoustic rendition of the traditional song Searching for Lambs. John Parker makes acoustic folk with dark undercurrents; a pretty flute melody masks lyrics about prostitution, rat infested houses, and other aspects of harsh urban reality. The song was recorded in 1975 but still sounds very contemporary. Rattlebag retell The Two Sisters in a London setting. Their lyrics, sung a capella, are set to the traditional Swedish tune Sorgsen Ton, which was popularised a few years ago by Swedish folk-rock band Garmarna. The Fates provide an evocative a capella piece in which the backing vocals form an atmospheric drone.

The Hare and the Moon do a mesmerising psych-folk interpretation of the traditional song The Three Ravens. The Kittiwakes, one of my favourite current folk bands, appear with their superb song Lynx, from the album Lofoten Calling (also reviewed earlier this issue). Venereum Arvum make meandering psych-folk with an off-kilter, experimental quality. Telling the Bees are another band I was already aware of and rate highly; here they appear with Fithfath, an energetic blend of Celtic and Eastern European folk music and classical music. Richard Masters makes a sophisticated brand of traditional-inspired folk. Crime- and supernatural-based lyrics are set to the tune of Gower Wassail, with clarinet adding jazzy and classical touches. Demdyke make inventive contemporary folk, setting supernatural-themed lyrics to neoclassical/experimental musical accompaniment. Beneath the Oak make minimalistic acoustic folk. Sedayne:Sundog appear here with the strangest track on the compilation, in which spoken lyrics are forcefully narrated over a dissonant experimental backing that uses folk instruments (fiddle, Jew's harp) to create an effect as far away from traditional folk music as can be imagined.

Some time ago I started to observe the previously unthinkable phenomenon of people connected with indie/rock/punk subgenres abandoning these styles en masse in favour of folk. Ruby Throat is yet another band to add to this list, as it includes Katie Jane Garside, formerly of Daisy Chainsaw! The idea of Katie Jane Garside turning up in a folk band is perhaps less surprising than it initially seemed, when you consider that Vince Johnson of Daisy Chainsaw, and Katie Jane's sister Melanie, known as Maple Bee, have both provided music for the Mediaeval Baebes, a band I have always maintained are folk, and not the laughable 'classical' pigeonhole they are often forced into. Since when were Tam Lin and Scarborough Fair classical pieces eh? Ruby Throat appear here with a song that sounds influenced by American folk music, though the arrangement is dark and edgy, and very far from conventional interpretations of folk. Minimalistic guitar, glockenspiel and atmospheric sound manipulation provide the backdrop for Katie Jane's fractured, childlike vocals.

Finally, Jennifer Crook provides contemporary songwriting that is much in the spirit of the folk tradition, and ends her track with an excellent traditional style waltz based on cello, harp and concertina.

Folk is a thriving genre and one that shows no sign of going away any time soon - and quite rightly so. The bands here are drawing on folk tradition whilst adding much of their own creativity. This compilation is a must for anyone interested in exploring the folk music currently emerging from the British underground. More info at www.coldspring.co.uk


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Text Kim Harten, 2010.