"Calendar Customs"

Sunday, 25 February 2018 00:00 Anthony D'Amico Reviews - Albums and Singles
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It is remarkable that I did not sprain my finger mashing the "order now" button when this vinyl boxed set was announced, as Folklore Tapes' elusive season-themed cassettes are among the label's most crucial releases.  Being someone who has not always been particularly enthusiastic about cassette culture, I was slow to realize just how unique and special those limited releases were when the series first appeared.  Consequently, this lavish boxed set is the first time that I heard many of these pieces, though the strange and eclectic stable of artists is certainly an endearingly familiar one for me at this point.  Obviously, having extremely high expectations for something is usually a sure-fire way to end up disappointed, but Calendar Customs actually exceeded my hopes, opening up a deep rabbit hole into an idiosyncratic, phantasmagoric, and sublime alternate history.

Folklore Tapes

Much like the original cassettes, the four LPs of Calendar Customs are each devoted to a single season, the first one being autumn (2014's Fore Hallowe'en).  Naturally, I would expect such a theme to lend itself extremely well to the eerie and hauntological aesthetic of many Folklore Tapes artists and I suppose it does, yet these nine autumnal pieces are no better and no worse than anything that follows.  There is one extremely conspicuous exception, however, as Snail Hunter's "Domnhuil Dhu" is one of the most gloriously batshit crazy pieces of music that I have ever encountered.  It is inspired by the story of a blasphemous seal on the Scottish isle of Iona who set about loudly proclaiming to all his aquatic neighbors that God is dead.  A passing human who laughed at his ridiculous performance was immediately struck by paralysis, meeting an unpleasant watery end.  To replicate that arcane legend, the croaking voice of the seal is hilariously "channeled" by John Billar over dream-like synth drones and field recordings of crashing waves from the island…and then the piece explodes into something that sounds like a raucous laser battle at a rodeo.  It is memorably and brain-fryingly ridiculous and exactly the sort of bizarre piece that could only be at home on a Folklore Tapes collection.  The rest of the autumnal fare is considerably more restrained, however, touching upon surreal collage (Mary Stark's "Nos"), creepily haunted and childlike vocal pieces (Eva Bowen's "Aos Si"), and a varied array of instrumentals.  The strongest of the lot is probably "Punkie Night" by Carl Turney and Brian Campbell (of Clinic), which marries an exotic and vaguely "Arabian" melody to a heavy, rolling groove of booming drums.

The Merry May (2015) LP that follows is not quite as strong as the rest of collection, which is unexpected given the seemingly rich vein of spring traditions available to explore.  That said, Snail Hunter again steals the show, this time as part of The Blue Funz.  Their brief, yet woozily beautiful "Milking Cows Through Cake" may very well be the most achingly lovely piece in the entire set.  Sam McLoughin contributes another memorably odd piece ("I Want to Sing Like the Birds Sing") that resembles a deranged and lurching festival procession of muddled flutes, whistles, and erratic percussion.  Arianne Churchman, one of the most reliably inventive and compelling contributors in the Folklore Tapes family, makes an appearance as well.  Her "Minehead Hobby Horse" is not quite as otherworldly or trance-like as some of her other work, but the evocative collage of clopping horses, cheering crowds, and crashing waves makes for an absorbing interlude nonetheless.

Mid Winter Rites & Revelries, released later that same year, marks a significant leap forward in both quality and consistency.  Most of the usual participants return, but they all seemed to be especially inspired this time around.  The Clinic folks definitely score one of the most bizarre highlights of lot, however, as their maniacal ode to the festival of Saturnalia brilliantly mashes together a pulsing sex beat, a sinister-sounding bell melody, and a contextually disturbing loop of a chortling and jolly Santa Claus.  Aside from being great, "Lo Saturnalia!" highlights something rather unexpected about Mid Winter Rites: it is probably the most haunted and dark record in the entire collection.  Almost everything sounds like it was either recorded by a ghost or is a distressed and disorienting field recording of some celebration from long ago.  As unnerving as it all is, there is a lot of eerily beautiful melody to be found in the strange and hallucinatory vignettes, particularly those by Magpahi and Mary Stark.  Elsewhere, Arianne Churchman contributes a mesmerizing spoken word performance ("Fourth Solo Cutty Wren Ritual") and Dean McPhee's wonderful "The Devil's Knell" turns up as well (a classic piece that also appears on his recent Four Stones album).

The final record, 2016's Crown of Light, is yet another improbably wonderful batch of delightful and mutifarious surprises.  Churchman is in especially fine form, as her "Midsummer Ley Line Hotline" creepily mimics an automated voicemail greeting concerning the blurring together of our world with the spirit world ("You are not dead…you are and are not yourself").  Carl and Brian also conjure up another idiosyncratic gem with "Maximum Tilt," which gradually evolves from a clattering, swirling cacophony into a gorgeous coda of lush drones and backwards vocal loops.  Some talented new participants join the fold here as well, as mainstay Rob St. John brings along the rest of his band (Modern Studies) for a lovely string reverie ("The Green Ray”) inspired by an unusual optical phenomenon that only occurs on the horizon of the sea.  Mary & David's "Solar Spell" gamely dives into similar drone-inspired territory, but takes it in a more elusive, hazy, and dreamlike direction.  The delicious unpredictable Funz folks also make their usual appearance (this time as The Yellow Funz), but unexpectedly turn in a tenderly rippling and music box-esque homage to a "moongate" said to fleetingly open in the woods of Stoke each summer.  Also, I would be remiss if I did not mention that yet another piece from Four Stones first surfaced here first ("The Blood of St. John").

Characteristically, a lot of effort and attention was devoted to both research and artwork for this milestone release, making it more of a lovingly assembled cultural artifact than a mere collection of songs.  The lengthy booklet is particularly welcome, providing brief background for many of the songs, as well as a much deeper plunge in seasonal customs in general from Jez Winship.  As such this collection is an embarrassment of riches, with the only real caveat being that these riches are a bit more diluted than those of the more recent and more distilled The Folklore of Plants.  Not every song here is great, but it would be very easy to assemble two excellent albums from this sprawling collection if I were so inclined.  Even the weaker pieces are a key part of the larger tapestry, however, and the Folklore Tapes milieu is nothing if not unusual and inventive.  That last part is the primary reason these collections are always so delightful and absorbing, as the label's early core of David Chatton Barker and Ian Humberstone has gradually blossomed into an eclectic, smart, and deeply creative community.  Such a fertile assemblage of disparate artists, writers, and musicians has seemingly fostered a friendly competition that encourages increasingly lovely, bizarre, or deep forays into the blurry aesthetic realm where history and folklore converge.  In a way, major Folklore Tapes releases such as this one are kind of their own ephemeral moongate, as each one is a rare artifact that opens a fresh portal into a mysterious, imagined past for the label's devoted acolytes.

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Last Updated on Sunday, 04 March 2018 11:51