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Hawthonn, "Red Goddess (Of This Men Shall Know Nothing)"

cover imageIt was quite a pleasant surprise to discover that latest Hawthonn album was getting a physical release in the US, as few things scream "zero commercial potential" quite like Phil and Layla Legard’s quasi-pagan and psychogeography-inspired drone-folk reveries. While characteristically arcane and anachronistic to its core, Red Goddess actually drew its initial inspiration from relatively current culture, as the Legards were (rightly) fascinated by the primal themes of Lars von Trier's Antichrist. From there, however, Red Goddess evolved into something far more mysterious and temporally ambiguous, abstractly exploring the symbolic role of mugwort in folklore and tradition ("an herb associated with dreaming, travel and menstruation, mugwort particularly favors edgelands: those abandoned, untended places, part man-made, part rural, where nature begins to reclaim what humanity has left behind").

Ba Da Bing

As befits a duo with such an esoteric and thoughtful conceptual approach, the Legards have a truly unusual, purist, and radical approach to composition: Hawthonn pieces generally take root in field recordings from a specific, meaningful place and the music blossoms forth from there.In the early stages of Red Goddess, for example, the Legards were attempting to track down field recordings made in the Black Forest (where parts of Antichrist was filmed, also a place described by Tacitus as an "inhospitable, impassable pagan kingdom").I am not sure if they ever found what they sought, but each of Red Goddess's five pieces have evocative natural sounds at their core, ranging from windswept plains to forest sounds to the gently burbling sounds of a stream. Plenty of other artists use field recordings for texture and do it well, but Hawthonn seem to use them as a subconscious guiding force instead, as Phil has long been intrigued by Jhonn Balance’s ideas about remote viewing, "psychic landscapes," and "imaginistic" travel.In practical terms, that means that a piece's shape is roughly dictated by the landscape that it is rooted in: a piece woven from field recordings of a cave will be very different from a piece birthed from a meadow in the springtime.That approach gives Red Goddess quite an unusualand sometimes challenging structure and arc, as pieces range from 3 minutes to 15 minutes and alternately resemble an ancient pagan ceremony; a seance, a vivid nightmare, or a funereal dirge.Fortunately, the latter is relegated to just one piece, the comparatively brief and goth-tinged instrumental "Misandrist."The rest of the album is devoted more to Hawthonn's strengths, which usually take the shape of Layla's mantric vocal improvisations over a hallucinatory and shifting bed of drones.At their best, Hawthonn sound like temporally dislocated druids recording cryptic hymnals to the earth's less traveled places.

The album's strongest piece is arguably the opening "In Mighty Revelation," which deceptively begins with a howling, rumbling roar before unexpectedly transforming into a very different piece around the 2-minute mark.Naturally, I am somewhat perplexed by the piece's slow start, but it is quite a stunningly unusual and transcendent achievement once it takes shape, evolving from an eerie backdrop of thighbone trumpet howls and deep exhalations to a majestic and swooningly lovely vocal piece.Layla makes especially fine use of hypnotic repetition, endlessly invoking the title phrase while addition layers of her vocals harmonize and swoop dreamily over Phil's shivering string swells.The other bookend ("Dream Fugue") is similarly quite memorable, steadily building into a deeply lysergic and blearily undulating collage from some rather innocent-sounding recordings of birds cavorting around the water.Though Layla does not sing at all in it, "Dream Fugue" is an especially strong example of Hawthonn's singular alchemy, as the quavering, impressionist drones; snarling strings; and languorous flute melodies weave perfectly into the field recordings to evoke an otherworldly and haunted landscape.The other two pieces are not necessarily weaker, yet they do tend to break the fragile, unreal reverie that typifies Hawthonn's better (and more understated) work."Lady of the Flood," for example, initially sounds disconcertingly like the night sounds of a darkly enchanted forest, then transforms into a bleakly angelic vocal interlude before erupting into a distorted and doom-influenced crescendo.The following "Eden" then inverts the formula, opening as a dark and brooding bit of wailing, goth-tinged psych-rock before building into a wonderfully feral outro of wildly processed and chopped string howls.

The one real caveat with both Red Goddess and Hawthonn in general is that the Legards have a fairly chameleonic, hard-to-categorize, and sometimes challenging aesthetic.And they follow their muse in some directions that sometimes seem counterintuitive or self-defeating.The other side of that approach, however, is that Phil and Layla's music often has a refreshingly organic and unhurried flow.When it works, their artistry sounds natural, vibrant, and spontaneous, while it errs on the side of under-edited when it does not.As such, I tend to run hot and cold on Hawthonn's oeuvre, but they are always headed in an intriguing and unique direction, even when some of their experiments are not quite triumphs.In any case, Red Goddess will probably win them a healthy amount of new fans, as it is a comparatively high-profile release that features some comparatively accessible work that falls within shouting distance of the doom zeitgeist (without being at all derivative).For me, however, Red Goddess is significant primarily for adding two new pieces ("A Mighty Revelation" and "Dream Fugue") to the small but growing body of Hawthonn's intermittent flashes of outsider near-brilliance.That is enough to make me like this album quite a bit: the Legards are not infallible, but they have a singular and ambitious vision that is wonderful to behold when it hits the mark.