18 Aug 2014
Stone Breath "Children of Hum"
The new Stone Breath album is such a cause for celebration that rather than let my writers come to fisticuffs as to who would review it, we're running a double review with Grey Malkin and Amanda Votta both sharing their perspectives:
Though it is the newest of Stone Breath’s albums, there is something incredibly familiar about "Children of Hum". Thanks in large part to the return of Stone Breath to the duo of Timothy and Prydwyn, the songs here sound as though they were wrought from the same stuff as their older work. Of course, there are the differences that time brings. Timothy’s skill as a musician has never been more apparent, nor has the beauty of his voice. Prydwyn’s singing is likewise truly remarkable and shining, his flute more mesmerizing than ever. Together, they make these cracked, ragged songs into some of the most perfect in Stone Breath’s history.
It’s always useful in a review to try to define the genre, to make useful comparisons to other bands who have come before or who work contemporaneously in a style similar to the music being discussed. While it would be easy to classify Stone Breath as psychedelic folk, to mention the influence that The Incredible String Band or Pearls Before Swine have had on Timothy and the band—and I just did—it’s also doing a disservice to Stone Breath. They have, over the years and through incarnations and despite classifications, made something truly unique. This may be psychedelic folk, but it’s also haunting and haunted, ephemeral, full of mystery and beauty that can’t be so easily defined. In the opening line of the first song “The Dead Keep This,” Timothy declares that every word he sings tonight “is fished from the mouth of a corpse.” Every note he plays, every sight he sees comes from the dead, from a dream-world beyond this one—these songs are full of ghosts. Here, Timothy’s smooth baritone is accompanied by sparse instrumentation, the plucked notes hang in the air a moment before fading away as the next sounds. If the song, and album as a whole, had stayed with this simple combination of Timothy’s voice and strings it would have been brilliant. However, part-way into the song he is joined by Prydwyn’s lighter voice and delicate, hypnotic flute. The sound of these two combining their voices and instruments is the sound of the heart and soul of Stone Breath, of two people who know and understand one another and one another’s songs. And this is a magical song, like the strains of some strange music that comes floating from the forest. Follow, and it leads you to a cathedral of trees, branches twining, the green so thick the light is colored by it.
On the proceeding song, “The Winding Way,” Timothy’s and Prydwyn’s voices blend in perfect harmony. Sometimes during the course of the song they veer apart, yet always come back together to enjoin the listener—or perhaps themselves—to follow the hum, to walk their own path wherever it may lead. Here, the instrumentation is more overtly complex, which allows Timothy’s skill as a musician to shine through. It is a glowing, lovely song, a celebratory and sorrowing paean to the path he, they, walks. “Always All One, All Ways Alone” follows and here again Timothy’s ability to play, to sing is remarkable. There’s something in his voice on this song in particular that makes you feel as though you’re hearing expressed just to you one of the most beautiful truths there is, listening to Timothy sing his heart under night sky, deep in some dream of a forest. It is, without doubt, an exceptionally uncommon song—even on an album full of such things.
The next song, “Brother Blood, Sister Moon,” is yet another testament to how very right the combination of Timothy’s and Prydwyn’s voices are. They blend, they part, they blend, each singing their own path, yet those paths always meet again. The sound of the music and of their voices here truly exemplifies Stone Breath’s ability to sound traditionally folk, yet entirely like themselves. No one else does what they do the way they do it. Then, with “All This and Alice,” there is something quite baroque, yet something else in the lower notes that feels very much like a contemplative droning. It’s a ghost of a droning, but it is there. In this song, you can also hear some of the different phases and incarnations of the band. Prydwyn’s shimmering flute opens the song that comes after, “At the Well,” and sets the mood of this lonesome apparition of a song sung into the wind and trees. With it, "Children of Hum" proper ends, with the remaining six songs being bonus material drawn from various places, various incarnations of Stone Breath.
It is, perhaps, a testament to the consistency of the music, of the sound, of the ability they have to express the nearly inexpressible, that this shift from album songs to bonus songs is barely perceptible. These songs still reflect that which has just been heard, even though they were made at different times, with different band members, for different purposes. The droning element that seemed to underpin “All This and Alice” is again in evidence with “Song to the Folding Leaves”—though much more prominently. You can hear it both in the instrumentation and in Timothy’s voice, making this song a compelling, almost forceful, one. The delicate sounding “Just Like the River” is a truly lovely song. Dreamy, ghostly, it is haunting and haunted. This is music that sounds as though it comes to you from some Other place, made by those who are not entirely of this world, who exist in some strange and beautiful land on the border of here and there. Music formed from moonlight and rain, made by those who “sit and sing under the waning moon,” with “Holes in our clothes – spiders in tangled hair,” as Timothy sings in “Starlight Sight.” This is a song that flows and sways like willows on the bank of a green river, but, like all of Stone Breath’s songs, there is that solid core around which the song moves. None of their work is ever lacking in conviction, never does the music want for passion, however delicate it may sound. Sarada’s beautiful, shining silver voice graces “Love in the Devil’s Tongue,” along with Don Belch’s baroque guitar and harpsichord playing. He appears again on the final song, “Dark Veils Part,” which Brooke Elizabeth lends her resonant voice to, adding compliment and counterpoint to Timothy’s own rich voice. There is also an arrangement of the traditional ballad “The Famous Flower of Serving Men,” performed by Timothy and Prydwyn. A beautiful rendition and a song that demonstrates Stone Breath’s ties to traditional folk song and the influence it has had on the way Stone Breath’s songs are constructed, the way the music and words fit together.
Just as important as the music are the illustrations that accompany every Stone Breath album. It is Timothy’s art, and it always completes, and serves as a visual interpretation of, the music. Truly, taken as a whole it is the work of a visionary, of someone who has definite ideas and a need to express those ideas in a way that, itself, grants visions. The art reveals and shows the way, the songs lead you down the path. The cover of "Children of Hum" is graced by a skeleton, bones twined round with vegetation, holding its hand out, a ring on the tip of one bone finger, towards birds and moths. An invitation, a warding away, a letting go, a reaching out towards. Listen, and perhaps you’ll know.
Wrought from the dead, from the winding way, from the trees and the earth, from bone and blood and sacred heart, "Children of Hum" is full of shimmering, devastating beauty. (Amanda Votta)
Over the course of thirteen albums and eighteen years Stone Breath have become one of the (if not the) foremost purveyors of modern wyrd folk, their psychedelic cobwebbed laments having influenced many a band (including my own). At root and dark beating heart they are the work and vision of one man, Timothy Renner, with a rotating cast of companions providing delicate and enchanting accompaniment (Stone Breath always feel more like a family of minstrels than having simply collaborators, indeed Timothy’s splendid dark Holler label is a family run affair). Many have walked amongst Stone Breath’s glades and forests over the years, such as Sarada Holt (also of Belladonna Bouquet) and Carin Wagner Sloan (of The Iditarod). For "Children of Hum" the band are solely Timothy and long-time friend and musical partner, the troubadour and solo artist in his own right Prydwyn.
This then is a stripped back, skeletal, haunted version of Stone Breath following ever expansive, layered classic acid folk fare such as ‘The Silver Skein Unwound’ and 'The Shepherdess And The Bone White Bird’. However this does not mean things have become more basic; in fact it is quite the opposite. The melodies twist and weave like the tendrils of one of artist Arthur Rackham’s trees around complex motifs; cascading harp and banjo creating a veritable forest of sound. The music herein is 100% acoustic and comprised solely of two voices, celtic harp, flute, guitar, bouzouki and whistles. 'The Dead Keep This’ is a spooked and wasted wander through some very dark woods indeed, the harp almost mediaeval and regal. It is an epic opener; at 7 minutes long this sets out the stall of this current incarnation of Stone Breath. ‘The Winding Way’, in which the lyrics describe following the Hum of the album title, is a dérive of dread and damp undergrowth. To this listener The Hum is a statement of belief, a means of describing Timothy’s own spiritual and personal path; a statement of intent.Prydwyn's delicate vocals underpin Timothy’s in a ghostly duet, at once both deeply affecting and chilling. To describe this music as intense doesn’t quite cover it. Fans of The Incredible String Band, COB and Midwinter will find much to love here. ‘Always All One, Always Alone’ is a bleak and bewitched acoustic paean with some Spanish style guitar adding texture and colour, albeit darkly.
There is something sacred about Stone Breath. They exist almost alone and isolated from any scene and are timeless; as much as their music has developed and changed over the years something core remains the same. Perhaps it’s because this is music made from the soul, made because the artist has no other option than to create; these songs are both genuine and real incarnations of Timothy and his vision. ‘Brother Blood, Sister Moon’ is akin to something from the True Detective TV soundtrack; black as midnight, it is a rural gothic masterpiece. Indeed, the atmosphere that Stone Breath can create with only a handful of instruments says a great deal about the strength of Timothy’s song writing; to my mind, he is up there with Clive Palmer, Mike Heron and Tom Rapp. Stone Breath are underground but for those who love them they inspire an almost loyalty and devotion. Again, it’s that sense of something personal and truly ‘real’, that this is music that matters.
'All This and Alice’s eastern raga is mysterious and madrigal like, a call into the desert; when the acoustic rhythm kicks in it is genuinely thrilling. 'At The Well's flute and intricate fingerpicking is like the spider in the song's tale, a web of interweaving lines and harmonies creating something spellbinding and unique. A love song of sorts, it is a hymn of nature. 'Song to the Folding Leaves’ twisted Americana and sitar buzz is a doomed delight, hypnotic and trancelike. ‘Just Like the River’s lute guitar also becomes a haunting drone, this is acoustic music but not in the Nick Drake sense. Instead there is a harshness amongst the beauty and melody that reminds us that Timothy also records as Albawitch, a much more folk and blackened metal proposition. ‘Starlight Sight ‘is a whispered chant into the wind, bouzouki carrying the song onwards under the firmament.
Although comparisons do not hold with a band as unique as Stone Breath if you are partial to Angels of Light, The Iditarod, the Jewelled Antler cohort and acts from The Little Somebody label such Novemthree you will adore this. 'The Famous Flower of Serving Men’ is intense; the bouzouki sounds like it comes from the bowels from hell, the song itself a ballad from the depths. This is the closest here that Stone Breath come to sounding like themore percussive Crow Tongue, an earlier band of Timothy’s whose releases are equally well worth seeking out. ‘Love in the Devils Tongue’ is beautiful acoustic folk, nuanced and played with great tenderness and precision. Sung by Prydwyn, the timeless and ancient heart of Stone Breath beats loudly here; it is heartbreakingly lovely. ‘Dark Veils Part’ is a dark lament with keening vocals blown across the sinister and driven backing. This is Stone Breath at their most powerful, percussion rattling in the raging storm of the music.
Stone Breath are a circle, a wheel of life; they change with the seasons but their nature remains. In that sense each album is distinctly their vision, recognisable but also different from what came before; like the different seasons perhaps. This then is Stone Breath’s autumn, skeletal but with a multitude of warm and varied colours and a deep melancholy. Both this album and their back catalogue cannot be recommended enough. Enter the woods, stray from the path; embrace the sound of Stone Breath. (Grey Malkin)
Housed, as always with Dark Holler releases, in a beautiful sleeve illustrated by Timothy.
Digital and CD both available here: