The new recording by Sharron Kraus inhabits an eerie and wonderful world, somewhere between eisteddfod and witches’ sabbat. Her past work has flitted from English folk to Appalachian mountain music and back again, taking in collaborations with members of American psych-folk pioneers Espers (Meg Baird and Helena Espvall) as well as Fursaxa’s Tara Burke. Pilgrim Chants and Pastoral Trails sees her shift her focus – and her home – to rural mid-Wales. The entire record is suffused with a lovingly melancholic sense of place, the result of two years of what must have been an intense kind of abandonment to the slow flux and immutable history of the landscape.
The majority of the record consists of cyclical, wordless chants entwined with otherworldly recorder, dulcimer and acoustic guitar. Rowan is a repetitive recorder and vocal refrain, a wintry trance. Cadair Idris – named after the southern Snowdonian peak said to be the celestial observatory of a mythical giant – is full of twinkle and awe, an elliptical orbit of plucked strings and gently climbing vocalisations.
There are moments of synthesised ambience and insistent drone – a la Fursaxa – but Krauss never lets these get in the way of the earthy template of the record. On Winding Road, for example, they are tempered by birdsong, while Dark Pool uses the field recordings of water. Indeed, the songs often evolve so that these natural sounds become the primary instruments.
Perhaps the weirdest and boldest track is Y Fari Lwyd, which begins with a recording of traditional Welsh celebratory song and evokes – via multi-tracked recorders – the ritual of the Mari Lwyd, a slightly dark take on the hobby horse tradition in which a grey mare (disturbingly incorporating the jaw-snapping skull of a real horse) is paraded from house to house, often gaining entry and challenging inhabitants to rhyming contests.
On repeated listening a narrative emerges, the story of a journey from east to west, from the solitary Elan Valley to the comparative bustle of Aberystwyth. It is also a story of longing, discovery and acceptance. The opening track is called Hiraeth, a Welsh word that translates (very roughly) into yearning, melancholy and nostalgia for a spiritually ideal past. It is a concept that admits a deep love for natural the natural world, and the songs on Pilgrim Chants and Pastoral Trails reflect that concept with a strange beauty of their own.
A fitting testament to a loving engagement with a corner of the countryside that remains as magical as ever.
Review by: Thomas Blake
Album Stream (via Deezer)
Pilgrim Chants and Pastoral Trails is released on Second Language, order it here.