Various artists, John Barleycorn Reborn
(Woven Wheat Whispers, 2007)
Objectivity be damned, it just can't be done! When presented with a collection of tracks dubbed Dark Britannica, comprising two CDs that when purchased entitles you to 33 extra downloadable tracks (the equivalent of two more CDs), which collectively prove satisfying time after time -- sorry, but all pretence at neutrality must be abandoned. This is certainly at least one of the best collections of the year, and a unique experiment that succeeds superbly.
Brought to you by the people at the legal folk download service Woven Wheat Whispers, John Barleycorn Reborn's remit of dark traditional and tradition-based British music does not necessarily focus on negativity and gloom as the wording might suggest. It is more an exploration of the less "pretty" side of the genre, with no attempts at expurgation and a freedom for the musicians to express that side of the music and themselves. As a result, the set contains a great variety of arrangements from acoustic to folk rock to electronica and beyond, and a combination of ancient and newly written material that fits together easily.
One of the few negatives of the set is that the actual writers of each track aren't directly credited, so in some cases it's hard to be sure if the song is old or new. The downloadable cover notes sometimes do give this information in the blurb for a track, but this can involve a bit of a search as opposed to having the information simply credited along with the title. Still, maybe it's a good thing to just let this timeless music speak for itself in that sense.
To do any sort of track-by-track analysis would keep us all here for hours, so perhaps I'll expand more generally. I kept notes as I listened through the whole set and the first thing to say is that at no time did it seem a chore to listen to so many songs a number of times; in fact it helped many of them become favourites more quickly. It's also interesting that although I had never heard of 99 percent of the performers before, it made absolutely no difference to the enjoyment of the recordings, as well it shouldn't! A lot of the material itself is maybe not the expected fare (no 'Tam Lin' for example), which may or may not show an intention to focus on the lesser-known songs, but it also proves the abundance of music in the genre in the first place. Not to mention its flexibility in withstanding the various interpretations that different artists place upon it.
The obvious inclusion is the almost-title track 'John Barleycorn', which appears in a few different forms, not including a further remix of one track on Volume 3. The first version by The Horses Of The Gods begins the entire set, with a foreboding and arresting arrangement that sets the scene well. The second version by The Anvil has quite a different feel, more melodic with distorted guitar and menacing overtones; the remix is even more mesmerising.
In overall terms, each disc is on a particular theme. Disc The First focuses on birth, though there is still plenty of death on display in, for example, Mary Jane's wonderful folk rock rendition of 'Twa Corbies', and 'To Kill All Kings' by Sol Invictus, which is more electronic folk though still traditional-sounding. Again and as is often the case throughout, "menacing" seems an appropriate description, too. Other highlights include the rousing 'Spirit Of Albion' by Damh The Bard and the downright spooky 'Hippomania' from English Heretic, another electronic piece with threatening drums, violin and electric guitar.
A number of the songs have a medieval feel with instruments to match, such as Sharron Kraus' 'Horn Dance' and Peter Ulrich's 'The Scryer and The Shrewstone', the latter being a story song featuring recorder and crumhorn in a creative arrangement. It's unfair to omit any particular track because, even though there is wide variety in musical approach and even recording quality, there is not one piece that makes me want to skip it on first or subsequent listening. However, let's move on regardless.
The theme of Disc The Second is death. It is British traditional music after all, so the subject is an obvious and appropriate one. This also features a recording of the title track, but quite different from the others. 'John Barleycorn: His Life, Death & Resurrection' as performed by Xenis Emputae Travelling Band (AKA Phillip Legard) has a different tune, and the arrangement of three voices and percussion leading into a mysterious-sounding mix of accordion, acoustic guitar and percussion is unique.
The mix of styles continues from Disc 1, ranging from the gentle, flowing 'To Make You Stay' by Tinkerscuss (with gorgeous vocals and almost a Pentangle feel to it) to the thundering folk rock of Obsidian Blade's 'While Angels Watch'. 'Nottamun Town' by Drohne is perhaps a more obvious choice of song, but again the arrangement is unexpected -- contemporary, electronic and foreboding, with some hurdy gurdy and a bit of folk/rap included for good measure! One of my personal highlights of the volume.
Recorders feature on a couple of tracks: Sand Snowman's 'Stained Glass Morning', an attractive acoustic song with melodic female vocals and a classic sort of Incredible String Band sound, and 'PewPew' by Quickthorn, a slower piece with two recorders in counterpoint, along with hammer dulcimer and laconic vocals, adding up to a sparse, medieval sound.
There are 17 songs in all on disc two, and although there are a few that I don't see necessarily fitting into the death theme, they all work together well. The final track by Martyn Bates is an evocative instrumental recorded exclusively for the set, and its title of 'The Resurrection Apprentice' leads neatly to the third and final volume.
The link to download the tracks for Part The Third is provided when you purchase the original double CD. The fact it's called "Part" rather than "Disc The Third" is a clue that there are too many songs to fit on one CD; in fact the 33 songs (over 200 MB of mp3s) fill up two more CDRs easily. There is no cover per se for this part, so how you store them is up to you. Also, the mp3s are not in a particular order, except for only the first few which are numbered, so compiling them into the order on the online tracklisting takes a bit of time too, should one wish.
I also used an audio editor to trim a few excess seconds of silence from the start and finish of some tracks, though that's just being finicky! Still, I got a sense of achievement from being a little "hands on" in the compiling of this third part.
The theme, as suggested before, is resurrection. Again, I suspect the fitting of some tracks to the specific theme is a bit flexible, though they fit the overall subject fine. With 19 tracks on volume 3.1 as it were, and 14 on 3.2, there is an equivalent amount of diversity and enjoyment as on the main set. That it is to say, a great deal of each.
I'll take the easy route and make a few general observations. A number of tracks would fall into the area of soundscape as much as song, particularly Sundog's 'Kilpeck June 2007' and Clive Powell's 'Ca The Horse, Me Marra'. The latter track features bird song and bells for the first two of its 11 minutes, with solo vocal eventually added to an intriguing treatment of a traditional-sounding melody.
The lengthiest track at around 12 minutes belongs to Curran with 'Seven Sleeps Seven Sorrows'. This also begins with bird song in a sort of industrial soundscape, before the addition of gentle dulcimer and bass to what turns out to be a great pagan folk/rock song. Its length is not a hindrance but instead allows a real exploration of the piece.
Although Venereum Arvum's take on 'Child 101: Willie and Earl Richard's Daughter' is an electronic remix of their song on disc 2, it was the "flower mix" here that made me realise that after a few listens, it's the sort of song you feel you've known forever. With the birth of Robin Hood as its topic, the song's arrangement combines male and female vocals with an appropriately ethereal backing.
Also worthy of special note is the loud, rousing track by medieval band Daughters Of Elvin. 'Ognor Mi Trovo' is energetic, fun -- and ancient! I also enjoy the "Tigon Mix" of 'Wake The Vaulted Echo' by The Owl Service; a sombre piece with piano intro that uses excerpts from late 1960s films (largely the reminiscences of wartime by an older lady) to create quite a sad, thoughtful track. As for the rest, I have no doubt any one of them could easily become somebody's favourite from the set.
The set is given the following general description: "An exploration of the seasons and their turning through the birth, death and rebirth of John Barleycorn, as observed in the fields, grain and ale." The story of Barleycorn, a personification of the process of turning barley into ale, contains all the sort of mystery and danger that informs a lot of the tracks on John Barleycorn Reborn; not least his arising from death and misfortune to have the last laugh.
These CDs are designed not just as an enjoyable listening experience, as if that wasn't enough, but as a call to arms to those who celebrate Dark Britannica to come into the light and reclaim their place in the world. If the end result brings the overall feel of this music to the wider world, with the attendant embracing of the mysterious spirituality inherent in life, then bring it on!
Postscript: I'm reliably informed that the issues I noted with Part 3 were only the case for a short while and have now been fixed. In other words, there is now a downloadable cover with tracklisting, and the mp3s are in the appropriate order. There is still a pleasing "hands on" effect with compiling this volume but it is made a lot simpler by these changes.
Note from Michael in 2009 -- Sadly, Woven Wheat Whispers no longer exists but Cold Spring Records still distributes the album, and I happily recommend it to anyone even remotely interested in its premise.