Reviewed by Robin Hamlyn
A long time ago, when people of my rapidly greying generation were in the business of acquiring record collections, the emergence of a double album was always a significant event. Double albums were a challenge. Frequently concept-driven, they had the space to explore musical nooks and crannies unavailable to the single-platter format. The Hare and the Moon’s 80-minute opus, "Wood Witch", is very much in the spirit of these double long-players of yore, and like the best of them, it offers up a profusion of riches that will reward deep, sustained immersion.
“The Midnight Folk” opens with birdsong and the limpid strummings of a harp. A clarinet then declares a three-note melody that hangs gauzily above the sylvan scene before our first encounter with the Voice with which all aficionados of The Hare and the Moon are familiar. “When midnight strikes in the belfry dark,” it intones, “and the white goose grates at the fox’s bark, we saddle the horse.” A horse “that is hayless, oatless, hoofless and pranceless, kickless and coatless.” And we have indeed saddled up and embarked on a journey of the utmost strangeness.
“The Bard of Eve” ghosts into life with layered voices reminiscent of Popol Vuh, followed swiftly by ethereal vocals, underpinned by a softly insistent tympani and percussion. Mike Oldfield’s Ommadawn springs to mind, but we are in even more enchanted territory here. There is a fire on the heath, around which dimly illuminated figures are dancing, graceful and measured, and yet the flames begin to illuminate something more sinister —what, exactly? — as Grey Malkin’s glorious, droning guitar saturates the atmosphere. “Come Unto the Corn” begins with the tremulous tones of a child invoking the presence of “holy behemoth”, entreating the entity to “rise now from the forest, from the furrows, from the field, and live!” All the while, a spectral march is coalescing out of the gloom, entreating us to fall into step, to follow the strange children into the depths of the woods.
“Reynardine” opens with the sound of a horn, yielding to a gorgeous string section which in turn supports a truly astonishing vocal performance. “O Taste and See” presents an unaccompanied vocal of rare purity; reminiscent of a boy-treble, transporting this listener to a draughty rural church at Evensong. And it is within the confines of this holy place that we remain for “Cruel Henry”, as massive organ tones permeate the stone-chilled air. The voice is once more reminiscent of a choir-boy, lending a menacing tincture to this intense murder-ballad. “The Wife of Usher’s Well” showcases Grey Malkin’s velvety voice — in occasional close harmony with itself — and demonstrates his genius as a musical story-teller. Grey illuminates the ballad from within, re-telling the ancient narrative with a compelling darkness that makes it seem newly minted. “The Erl King”’s eerie ambience circles and spreads before the Voice ---- whose phrasing here is reminiscent of the album’s opening track ---- beckons the listener once more to shadowy, liminal spaces. The song’s chilling narrative is beautifully delivered, the Voice trembling on the edge of breathlessness, once more re-presenting the antique in a temporal context that belongs to neither past nor future.
The unaccompanied Voice that delivers “The Great Silkie of Sule Skerry” takes us straight to the bruised heart of this Orcadian ballad, while the brief-but-magical instrumental interlude that is “Down by the Greenwood Side” throws a lambent glow on our sepulchral surroundings. “The Cruel Mother”’s opening figure is heavily phased, evoking a distinctly 1970s sound-world, and when those soft yet stygian tympani strokes once more emerge from the myst, we are somewhere between the foliage of Black Park — Hammer Studios’ location of choice when filming forest scenes — and the strange aural poetry of the sort that graced the 4AD label during the 1980s (think This Mortal Coil, The Cocteau Twins, and Harold Budd). It is a breathtaking moment, and when the Voice emerges to propel the bleak narrative into even gloomier regions, the full impact of this ghostly waltz becomes apparent. “The Dream” takes us into the orbit of “Treasure”-era Cocteau Twins, but saturated with an indefinable strangeness that claims the latter’s ethereal spirit and plants it right in the heart of the woods. “O Death” breathes itself softly to life amid the chimes of an Aeolian harp, the sound of the wind, and a delicate vocal “wash”, almost Mellotron-choir like in character. Towards the end of the track, more softly disturbing percussion makes its entrance, carrying in its wake more of Grey’s ominous guitar, and culminating with the deep bronze chimes of a cathedral bell.
“The Gloaming”’s opening bouquet of wiry guitar and twisted piano disintegrates into a profusion of carnival phantasy; all haunted music boxes and Brechtian menace. “The Willow Tree” features an utterly compelling male vocal, whose whisky-soaked entreaties recall Nick Drake, Ian Curtis, and Stuart Staples. Against a luminous myst of shifting textures, this voice, bleakly accepting of its fate “to die beneath the willow tree” dissipates amidst the glorious ruins of Grey’s sonic architecture. “Morgiana” opens with a wintery tune emanating from a silvery music-box before blossoming into a glorious, hugely uplifting fountain of melody. The tempo is stately, but this track exhibits a hard-won joyfulness, trailing off into the mellow distance, like lantern-bearers at an ancient ceremony.
This is one of the most important albums you’ll hear this year, and a milestone in The Hare and the Moon’s output. Grey Malkin is a master of his idiom, and supreme practitioner of his art. Listening to this album, I’m reminded of the words Richard Thompson used to pay tribute to the great Martin Carthy: “He’s like an old Samurai swordsman, quietly honing his craft.” Unlike Carthy, Grey is not old, but his music has neither a past nor a present, neither a starting nor an ending point. Nor is it rooted in any other terrain than that of an imagination transfigured by the fire of a glorious, insatiable muse. An astonishing achievement.
Available on CD from Reverb Worship
You can sample many tracks from the album here.