Having been fortunate enough to see the staging of Crows’ Bones at St. Leonards church in Shoreditch (live review), the setting and timing, just a week before Christmas, added considerably to the performance. It was a magical if spooky night, with Inge Thomson and Becky Unthank’s voices, Martin Green’s accordion and Niklas Roswall’s nyckelharpa, augmented by sundry props and effects, creating an otherworldly and at times, somewhat unsettling atmosphere. But then this is work themed on the supernatural and like the best ghost stories, the chills are an essential ingredient in creating the thrills. In that sense it’s a pleasure to report that the tingle also translates to the CD, which even shorn of the visual impact, the immediacy of the performance and the evening’s spectacular, dark, mid-winter setting.
In the brief notes that Martin writes for the CD he’s keen to point out that although his name appears in the biggest letters on the artwork and despite sitting at the heart of the project, this is a genuine collaboration. Inge, Becky and Niklas are naturally enough the other names to make the front cover, but the credits and musical cast are expanded. Firstly of course, Martin is keen to thank Opera North for their adventurous spirit in commissioning the work. It’s not the first time Martin has worked with them, but it’s still gratifying to see artistic boundaries crossed with such positive results all round. Martin also credits Adrian Utley, who has added his considerable and varied instrumental skills to the recording, with Calum Malcolm also earning praise for capturing the recording. The line up is completed by Andy Sutor’s bass drum and Ayarkhaan, a female trio from the nether reaches of Siberia, who contribute the khomus, a local variant of the Jew’s harp to the final track.
It’s strange the way that these things stack up, but this is not the first record with a ghostly theme this month, nor is it the first time that Calum Malcolm’s name has cropped up here in April. There’s another direct connection to one of our featured artists and Albums Of The Month, although more of that later, besides, apart from the fact that such coincidences simply mark the range of great and varied music being made, it’s probably best not to think too hard about connecting the threads, as that way is surely the route to madness. Suffice in this case to say, that Calum has once more done a great job of bringing Crows’ Bones to life and the CD sounds simply superb.
[pullquote]there’s nothing like folk music for misogyny, murder and mayhem. Gangster rap hasn’t got a hope of keeping up with the body count of the ballads and broadsides[/pullquote]Despite the sensationalism that some other forms of music have attracted, there’s nothing like folk music for misogyny, murder and mayhem. Gangster rap hasn’t got a hope of keeping up with the body count of the ballads and broadsides and mouldering corpses and restless spirits of the wronged are common motifs, meaning the tradition is a good place to start a project such as Crows’ Bones. Yet, despite that, only three of the nine tracks are wholly or in part sourced that way, although all of the songs blend pretty seamlessly into a suite or work that needs to be appreciated in its own right. Individually there are some fine musical moments, but once again the holistic approach to the CD is beneficial and the flow is a part of the blurring of the boundaries between the old and the new.
The extra instrumentation adds to the complexity of the mix, without ever distracting from the whole. Martin is renowned for coaxing the unexpected from an accordion and the nyckelharpa has its own distinctive, plaintive voicing. Martin also plays piano on the recording, then there is Adrian’s guitar, mellotron and percussion, plus the genuinely curious one stringed log. Add a number of toys and the other contributions highlighted above and you have a unique and original mix of sounds, tones and timbre. Equally distinctive, however, are Inge and Becky, two singers who sound like no others and in tandem are just perfect to carry the stories of Crow’s Bones.
No further proof is required than the opener, Mess Of Crows, which creates an immediate sense of drama and foreboding. First Inge and then Becky take up the story of two lovers, an ancient stone circle and the inevitable realisation of the vow, “‘til death do us part.” It’s when the two singers combine and the voices start to weave around each other that you really start to sense something uncanny. Although equal parts mysterious and mournful in its slow unravelling, it’s also an oddly beautiful piece and the way the two voices hang at the end is spellbinding.
Another previously unnoticed connection is made next as the source of the tune for Lyke Wake Dirge is David Shepherd of Blowzabella, another band who have featured here recently. Once again however the version recorded here crosses into another realm with Becky’s voice given a particularly spectral treatment. This of course is one of the traditional folk songs, originating in Yorkshire.
I’m not sure whether Some Living arks the recorded debut of the log, but its curious nature is matched by a curious sound that is given a percussive element with a couple of strikes of the bow, which then drawn across the strings produces something between a creak and a groan. The unusual instrumentation, toy pianos, glockenspiels and other devices also work their way into I Saw The Dead, a song written by Villagers’ Connor O’Brien. The whole song seems to want to float free of its rhythmic tether and suddenly launches into a carnival or fair ground ride in the middle.
[pullquote]the effect is of a ghost of a song trying to make itself heard from the other side[/pullquote]As disorienting as that may be, Some Neither, is one of two improvised pieces that captures fragments of The Banks Of Red Roses. For those unsure, such an idyllic motif is generally a cue for a young maid to be cruelly despatched, but here the narrative thread is post and the effect is of a ghost of a song trying to make itself heard from the other side.
One December Morn is another outstanding song written by The Young’uns Sean Cooney, although from their last album rather than the one featured alongside this CD. It tells the little known and tragic story of the bombardment of Hartlepool by three German Battleships during WWI. Around 100 souls lost their lives, many of them children, in an act that would see the C20th drift towards total war, with no distinction between combatant and civilian. It’s a very moving bit of writing, that gets a sympathetic and mournful arrangement making good use of the nyckelharpa to support Becky.
Two of the album’s longer pieces come next, with the Child Ballad, Three Ravens, which has a powerful mid section, at it’s end it drops down to a drone with Inge and
Becky, before the nyckelharpa segues into Malkin’s Bridal March / Griesly Bride, a cautionary tale about the perils of marrying a werewolf with an Australian angel.
That just leaves the concluding improvisation of Some Dead with the aforementioned Ayarkhaan to bring us to the disorienting climax. But disquieting as some of this is, it’s never less than compelling and like the best ghost stories keeps you hooked in until the end. Crows’ Bones is a uniquely satisfying piece of work. Those ghosts it seems, have migrated into the machinery and sit at the periphery of this recording, watching and listening. You might just catch something in the corner of your eye as you sit and listen.
Review by: Simon Holland
Released 20 April 2014 via Reveal Records