Brian Froud is one of the foremost living artists who go "under the hill" and depict the realm of Faery. He has produced the books Faeries, Good Faeries/Bad Faeries and Lady Cottington's Pressed Fairy Book, and has worked on such famous movies as Labyrinth and The Dark Crystal. Green Man recently published a review by Andrea S. Garrett of The Faeries' Oracle, co-created by Froud and Jessica Macbeth. When Faeries was released as "music to look at Froud by," I jumped at the chance to review it. The week the CD arrived, I shut myself in my study, arranged all the Froud prints I own around me, and played the album from beginning to end. I was initially surprised by what I heard.
I usually think of fey music as dreamy and ethereal, with slender instrumentation, no specific percussion, and a clear, distinct sound. Music by Enya comes to mind, as well as some of the lovely things Metamora has done. However, in the written interview that accompanies this album, Froud says that faery music is traditionally erotic and seductive, dangerous. The music here is not dreamy so much as hallucinatory or trance-like. It's dense, big and almost overripe. When I listened to it while looking at Froud's work, I found that I was understanding his images in a different way. They seemed much wilder -- and yes, more dangerous.
The album opens with "Sweet Allure" a song by Balligomingo (Garrett Schwarz and Jennifer Hershman), from their album Beneath the Surface. There's a surface brightness to this song, but it breaks like a thin skim of ice into seething complexity. The instrumentation is a mix of synth and sampled live instruments, with lots of bass. Jennifer Harshman's voice is breathy and moany, calling to mind modern-day banshees Sarah MacLachlan, Tori Amos, and Kate Bush.
The next track is a song that I find myself returning to again and again: "Dreaming" by BT (BT, Judie Myers, Mike Paxman, and Paul Muggleton), from their album Movement in Still Life. With vocals by Kirsty Hawkshaw (better known for her work with Delerium), scratching by Davey Dave, and interesting added sounds such as creaking wood, this song is an aural feast. It has a dark, dense "trance" sound, lush, bloody and pulsing. The lyrics and music are perfectly matched. "Nothing can be as savage as earth. One taste is never enough... No words. No talk. We'll go dreaming." "Nature's Kingdom," by Delerium (Bill Leeb, Luke Doucer and Kirsty Hawkshaw) from their album Poem, follows. It's full of the sounds of birds singing, and feels day-like and wistful, in contrast to the darker impression of "Dreaming."
"Awakening" is an adaptation from Sergei Rachmaninoff by Sasha Lazard, from her album The Myth of Red. It's a melodramatic song, full of swoony violin (played by Lili Hayden) and washes of synth. Midway through, it slips into a night-jazz, pushing beat. Sasha sings in a lush, wailing voice, reminiscent of Sarah Blackman and the late Ofra Haza. (Sasha Lazard's Web site is here). "Awakening" is followed by "Miserere," by Paul Schwartz, from his album State of Grace: Music of Paul Schwartz. It's one of the weakest tracks on this CD. It contains a sacred choral a capella piece, sung by The Joyful Company of Singers, as the undersound, mixed with modern, bass-and-percussion-heavy trance-jazz. It's a bad mix. Enigma (affectionately nicknamed the "Funk Monks" by a friend of mine) is perhaps the group best-known for their blending of sacred choral music (such as Gregorian chant) with sensual New Age rhythms and instrumentation. They do it well. In comparison, "Miserere" comes across as too derivative at best; at worst, "elevator music."
Another track from Balligomingo's Beneath the Surface, "Wild Butterfly" is brighter than "Sweet Allure," more open. The vocals include layers of breathy whispering, voices overlapping like the voices of lovers who have reached the point when all thought is gone. In direct contrast to this quietly erotic piece is the next track, "Alegria," by Rene Dupere, from Cirque du Soleil: Alegria. This song is part of the musical backdrop composed by Dupere for the Cirque du Soleil's travelling circus performance, Alegria. To describe it, I'm going to quote from my earlier review of the album. "The opening theme [of the performance], 'Alegria' contains the following lyrics in English, Spanish, and Italian: 'Alegria, I see a spark of light shining... Alegria, I hear a young minstrel sing... Alegria, beautiful roaring scream of joy and sorrow so extreme. There is a love in me raging: alegria, like an assault of joy.' The words are sung by Francesca Gagnon, in a rich, husky alto with ferocious raw power. The instrumentation is appropriately large and powerful."
Up next is "Undistracted" by Moodswings, from the album Psychedelicatessen. Global Trance and Dance calls Moodswings "ambient dance and trance," and I think that about encapsulates it. "Undistracted" has a very large, orchestral sound. It begins with sweeping low notes, lots of "bottom," then breaks into a big bright "trance" sound, relentless, exuberant, with lots of percussion. There's a speaking voice used percussively throughout, along with the sound of a huge crowd cheering. (Notice the words "large," "big," and "huge"? They're all apt.)
"Nevermore," also Paul Schwartz, from his album Earthbound, suffers from the same "bad mix" problem that "Miserere" does. In this case it's perhaps even more excruciating, because the song begins so well! It has a soft, slow minor opening, with the glassy chime of a harp and the high pure voice of Emily Aylmer. It's the traditional faery sound I was expecting to find on this album; it goes deep and awakens inexpressible longing. Then Ruth Cahill joins Aylmer, and their two voices blending in close harmony, separating into polyphony and then rejoining, are exquisite. The lyrics are the perfectly evocative sort, with lavish use of words like "stars," "moon," and "tears." "I see you in the moonlight... We've both been here before... nevermore." But then the sweet fey sound gives way to jazz percussion and screeching violins. It's horrendously jarring. In the end, it goes back to sparse voice and harp, and I unclench my jaw...
Fortunately, immediately following "Nevermore" is "Aerial Boundaries" by Michael Hedges (d. 1997), off his album of the same name. I remember seeing Hedges play, and watching the way he would strike the strings and sometimes the body of his guitar, getting the widest possible range of sound from one instrument. In "Aerial Boundaries," sharp, hard-edged notes come bursting and bouncing out of a background of constant, flowing finger-picking. It has the sort of rhythm that causes you to rock back and forth without being aware of it. Hedges was an amazing guitarist, and this is one of his more amazing pieces. The unsprung sound of his guitar catches me by the throat every time. (For anyone out there who loves Hedges' music and joins me in mourning his untimely demise, Nomad Land is the Michael Hedges Web site.)
The final track on this CD is "Hugh" by Nightnoise, from the album Music of Nightnoise. It's basically a traditional tune, loosened and modernized. There's a piano, played a bit like George Winston, with flute and fiddle joining in. It's melancholy and pretty, but more like background music.
So, how does all this music mesh with Froud's art? I'll do my best to describe it, but I'll have to approach it from the corner of my mind's eye, the way (it is said) creatures from Faery are most easily seen. One of my favorite Froud pieces is "Hestia," which I developed a deep attraction to after seeing it in conjunction with Charles de Lint's wonderful story in The Wild Wood. For those of you unfamiliar with it, it's a picture of a grey-eyed woman with long, mahogany-brown hair blown full of autumn leaves. In her hand, half-lowered from her face, is a "green man" mask of burnished red leaves. I sat gazing at this picture while I listened to Faeries, and some of the pieces seemed to fill my ears the same way the picture filled my eyes, setting up an inner resonance (I know "resonance" has been used to death, but in this case...). "Dreaming," "Wild Butterfly" and "Aerial Boundaries" in particular were good counterparts for "Hestia."
This CD is "enhanced," which means it contains several other files besides the music tracks. One of them is the aforementioned text interview with Froud regarding faery music and how music relates to his work. In the interview, he says that he uses music while working, lets it "take him away." He surrenders to it and releases hold of his conscious mind to float freely. It is then that he is able to hear the "voices of faery." Another file is a video clip of Froud talking about faeries in general, and about where he gets the inspiration for his work. This is a mostly forgettable blip, since he says nothing truly substantial, nor anything that can't be found elsewhere, such as on his Web site (see the link at the end of this review).
Then there is a gallery of some of Froud's pieces, including some that haven't been shown previously. These are as beautiful and eerie as you'd expect Froud's work to be. One piece, entitled "A Slippery Faery," shows a female faery with phouka elements, including hooves and horns spiralling gracefully away from her forehead. Another, "The Frog Queen" is more realistic in style, with the features of the human model clearly delineated without any distortion or exaggeration. The fact that her torso ends in a gorgeous -- and also realistically rendered -- pair of frog's legs is simultaneously natural and disconcerting.
Finally, Froud offers a sneak peak at the forthcoming Lady Cottington's Fairy Album, the next in the popular "squashed fairies" series. While I personally find no pleasure in this particular direction Froud has taken, there are many fans of Lady Cottington who will be delighted to see this new book.
Also packaged with the CD are a booklet of liner notes and a small card with one of Froud's pictures on it (my copy contains a delightful picture that looks like the old "trick photographs" that showed "real fairies"). The liner notes contain a wonderful introduction to the album by Neil Gaiman, in which he says, among other things, "This is how you can truly tell the music that had its origins, in Lord Dunsany's memorable phrase, 'beyond the fields we know:' it is unsatisfying. It stirs you to restlessness...." The notes also contain reprints of some of Frouds most well-known pieces, including a detail from "Go West" -- one of the conceptual paintings Froud did for The Dark Crystal -- and a detail from "Hestia."
There is one way in which I find this album to be a let-down. Given its title and the way it is marketed, I expected to find that the pieces collected for this album would be those that Froud chose himself, either because they are pieces that he feels best accompany his art, or because they are favorites that he likes to listen to while working. However, after reading the interview with Froud -- in which he says that "any music will do" when he's working -- and looking at all the other accompanying literature, I've come away with the sense that this album was more of a marketing gimmick. There is no indication that Froud was deeply involved in the selection process. I may, of course, be entirely wrong. But that was my sense of it.
Overall, however, the album is quite satisfying, and something I'll listen to often in the future. As an accompaniment to Froud's art, I find that it has enhanced my visual pleasure in his work in unexpected ways. The "enhancements," with the exception of the liner notes and a couple of the pictures reproduced, are basically unnecessary, but they don't detract from the music. "True fairy music," says Gaiman, "will creep into your dreams."
The World of Froud is a gorgeous Web site, which Brian shares with his wife, fellow-artist Wendy Froud.