Various Artists - We Bring You A King With A Head of Gold [Cold Spring - 2010]The acclaimed Cold Spring label, famous for specializing in ominous, unforgiving harsher musicks in the industrial and ambient genres, tapped into the rapidly expanding British folk scene in 2010 and released this 2 disk compilation featuring almost entirely little known musicians.
This scene derives most of its sound from age-old medieval English folk and the more politically conscious folk of the 60's and 70's. There is nothing psychedelic, ethereal, transcendent, or even explicitly pagan about many of the songs here, so I'm not sure if 'neofolk' would be an applicable label. Instrumentation includes, besides the obligatory guitar and voice, flutes, snare drums and the occasional violin or drone instrument. The singing style is uniformly pure, tuneful and pleasant, though some of the singers seem passionless.
The compilation certainly has its moments. Kate Harrison's "England", an airy, minimalist melody for unison flute and piccolo (no guitar to be found), has a perfect purity, and sounds like it's being played on a cloud. Sproatly Smith's "I Shall Leave You There" has many of the same qualities, and is not only the best song on this compilation, but also the best song on their debut album, "The Yew and the Hare". It begins with chimes and muted gusts of noise like a strange astral wind, before breaking into a short, mournful flute refrain over the rhythmic ticking of a clock. The drugged, lilting vocals, somehow projected from across a great void, echo in a timeless space, and express an intense world weary yearning. This song is acid folk at its best. It brings me to tears nearly every time I hear it.
The other truly psychedelic songs are gems as well. Tony Wakeford's "The Devil" is a plodding march through an opaque fog of otherworldly dread, which deepens and swirls around the listener as Wakeford's deep voice warns insistently of the trickster's attempts to tempt mortals. Jennifer Crook's "Ribbons of Green / The Dream Waltz", the closing tune of disk 2 and therefore the entire set, is a lovely, twirling maypole dance, the softest, most fragile beauty of the entire set, culminating in a round of many voices alternating around the title phrase. "The Three Ravens" by The Hare and the Moon is another masterful construction, a sing-songy melody intoned calmly over a snare drum cadence that seems to suspend time.
Natasha Tranter and Philip Butler's "Jack the Mommet", the deathly melancholy "Swan and the Minotaur (Troubled Man)", and a waterfall of acapella harmonizing with healthy doses of drone singing called "The Song of the Fates" (credited to 'The Fates' themselves), all tug my heartstrings significantly, and stand up as great examples of solid, emotional songwriting. Emil Brynge's "Devon Dream" portrays sly woodsy wisdom without sounding forced or overdone, and the two instrumentals, the pastoral "Lost at Ty Canol" by Wyrdstone and Fithfath's contemplative "Telling the Bees" are beautiful, meditative pieces.
A mystic, idiosynchratic intrigue indeed surrounds those arrangements that have persisted since the distant past, most notably the mesmerizing circular harmonizing of "Cutty Wren", here performed with warmth and feeling by Corncrow. Rattlebag's demonic acapella performance of "The Tyburn Sisters" is an incredible phenomenon, with inventive use of odd, high pitched harmonizations to keep each chord unsettling and dissonant.
Despite all the good music mentioned above, the precedent of simplicity within English folk is sadly used as an excuse for heavy-handed, cringeworthy lyrics in cliche terms on more than a few occasions as well. These songs evoke images of the middle ages about as well as your average fantasy themed TV show. Kim Thompsett's "Lords and Ladies" is the perfect example. There is but a single verse repeated throughout the song, a loping jig-like dance. She sings slight variations of "come from the woods, come from the stream, come from the meadows oh so green", ending each time in "All you lords and ladies dance with me" and an instrumental break. I find these lyrics to be meaningless in our modern time, evoking only a tired, escapist mentality. I imagine "Hear It With My Heart" by Cernunnos Rising, also found on the first disk, as sung by a vampire or a knight in shining armor. It's an almost hilarious attempt at a melodramatic gothic ballad with synth pads straight out of a bad RPG.
The songs on here that could be described as "hippie protest folk" also began to grate on me rather quickly, particularly Magicfolk's "Green Man", a song chock full of clumsy rhymes like "You don't need traffic signs to follow the lay lines" and "too much road rage in the Aquarian age", sung in a smug, "knowing" tone that screams 'new age'.
Many of the other tracks are simply forgettable, even after many listens to the entire compilation, usually due to weak melodies. Touch the Earth's "Ancient Landscapes", Dragon Spirit's "Always Be Ours" and Drohne's "The Hooden Horse" are among these, and there are many more.
In the end, I enjoy roughly half of the songs on these two disks, and frequently find myself skipping songs as I listen, and consequently wishing they'd condensed the compilation to a single disk. Quality aside, I also feel that not everything found here belongs together. Still, there are at least 8 or 9 songs on here I really wouldn't want to be without, that only improve with listening after listening. Rabid fans of this style and scene should investigate this compilation immediately, but others will likely find many of the songs tedious as I did, and should either briefly skim this set or acquire the good songsJosh Landry