Weird seems to have been out of fashion for a while now. You’ll come across oddity, but freakishness seems to have been absent without leave. But now, there’s The Witching Tale. The band is Katharine Blake from Mediaeval Baebes and Miranda Sex Garden with Michael J York from Coil, Current 93, The Utopia Strong, and Teleplasmiste and they have released their album The Witching Tale, featuring guest musicians Charlie Cawood, Kavus Torabi and the ethereal soprano of Katharine’s twelve-year-old daughter, Rosa Marsh.
This, their ten-track, eponymous debut album is, according to the band “a black celebration of the magical power of eroticism – and of its peril. It’s an intoxicating nightshade brew of musical and lyrical influences from 8th century Arabia to now that melds traditional instrumentation with analogue electronics and field recordings. The resulting sound evokes both folklore and the celestial, fusing earthbound and extra-terrestrial. Hovering above it all, Blake conjures forth melodic familiars and holds them in thrall with her sweeping, spellbinding vocals”.
The result is a real smorgasbord of influences tumbling across the tracks. The lyrics are drawn from the female poets of the first millenia, breathing new modern life into the antiquated erotic verse, before settling on the disturbing other-worldliness of eighteenth and nineteenth century writers such as Chesterton, Scott and Poe. The common denominators between these diverse roots is, not surprisingly, sex, longing and death.
The music itself is equally extensive and broad-based, being both modern and traditional. There are plenty of synths and guitars merging with bagpipes, recorders, and hurdy-gurdy to create a highly striking sound. A further boost to the soundscape comes from the use of more exotic instruments such as duduk, lyre, zither, guzheng, tanpura, begena, and rebab amongst others which all adds to the unhinged colourful stew. The vocals themselves are often integrated into this, being multi-layered and textured with Katharine Blake sounding almost ghostly at times. Again, there are many styles on display. Folk and rock are just starting points, joined as they are by classical or jazz moments, there are hints of nursery rhymes and passages that are very much medieval in manner. It leans on both western and eastern traditions. It is folkloric and superlunary, blissful and blissed out. It is sometimes unfair to make comparisons with other acts, but this music at times brings to mind Third Ear Band and Comus, although joined by a female vocalist.
The songs themselves would take some concentration to untangle. You feel you have the gist of a song but you aren’t quite sure. Much of the lyrics are esoteric so you are dependent on the instrumentation to give clues. While The Sea is about a Scottish kelpie, The Falling Garden appears to be about an enchantment, “a bewitched bard’s spellstrung fingers marionetting chords from his sex magicked instrument.” But the obscurant nature of the songs makes clarity elusive. The feel of the songs is quite evident though and perhaps that is what matters here.
This is an intriguing album marinated in paganism. It is excessively fey, with a febrile aura suggesting that its own seriousness might implode it. That it doesn’t is down to the consummate flair of the musicians and the skills of the songwriters. Production could have let this release down quite badly, it needed to have clarity and a lightness of touch for the transmundane qualities that the concept needs. That is achieved with alacrity. Many will find the whole spirit of the release to be too absurdist, but there’s enough decent music here to appeal to a wide range of prog rockers and others. The band assesses the album as; “The elves populating its ethereal aesthetic are as fractal as they are faerie, and they hum at the whirling hem of a dancing witch’s dress.” Not weird at all then.
- The Beckoning
- The Queen Rides Alone
- The City In The Sea
- The Web Is Broken
- Spirans Amore
- Where The Sea Snakes Curl
- The Falling Garden
- The Witching Tale
Katharine Blake: vocals, descant recorder, treble recorder, double recorder, violin, percussion
Michael J York: synthesizers, bagpipes, tanpura, duduk, fender rhodes, piano, double bass, electric guitar, hurdy-gurdy, viola da gamba, begena, rebab, percussion, field recordings
Rosa Marsh: vocals
Charlie Cawood: lyre, zither, guzheng
Robin Blick: sopranino saxophone, alto saxophone, tenor saxophone, flugel horn, French horn
Kavus Torabi: electric guitar
Joe Lazarus: drums
Ben Woollacott: drums
Release date: 5th November, 2021