Thursday, 10 October 2019

Various Artists - Witchcraft and Black Magic in the United Kingdom.

Album: Witchcraft and Black Magic in the United Kingdom
Artist: Various
Catalogue no: ETR022

     1.      Grey Frequency – Elegy for Vinegar Tom
     2.      Rapoon – The Village
     3.      Howlround – Crypt of St. John
     4.      Satori – Hag of Hair
     5.      Daniel Williams – Do you Believe in Witches
     6.      Michael Bonaventure – Coronach
     7.      Sky High Diamonds – The Discoverer
     8.      Howlround – Peck in the Crown
     9.      Daniel Williams – You can do Almost Anything you Want with Them

It’s now hard to imagine that there was a time, about 350 years ago, when the fear of witches and magicians was very real in Britain, reaching its apogee in the 17th century when the likes of misogynist Witchfinder General Matthew Hopkins went roaming across the land in search of ‘witches’ and securing their conviction, mostly through highly dubious means. These victims of the witch hunts and trials were all probably innocent, but in those highly-charged times, the church had a much more pre-eminent role in the life of the populace (most of whom were illiterate and ignorant). Those two terms, witchcraft and black magic, were, in the minds of most people, interchangeable and even though we are more enlightened these days, there are still those who believe that the two practices are the same thing (in fact, the last woman convicted of witchcraft was prosecuted during the last war, and the Witchcraft Act was only repealed in 1951 in the UK).

Raffaele Pezzella’s Eight Tower Records here presents us with a set of nine pieces based around the general theme of British witchcraft and black magic. And we get stuck right in with Grey Frequency’s ‘Elegy for Vinegar Tom’; Vinegar Tom is the name of a 1976 play and also the name of a cat familiar character within the play, and was written to explore the role unequal gender politics played in both the 17th century trials and 20th century women. It begins with supernatural howling and scratching, all the while a ringing tone haunts the background. The atmosphere here is one of forbidden rites performed in murky forests by the light of the moon, a classic image, a rite of calling upon nature in service to man and woman. Gently it fades into magnificent ambient pastoral tones, reminding us of witchcraft’s natural connections.

Robin Storey’s Rapoon bring us an uncharacteristically un-Rapoon-like track, distant church bells into which a series of plucked string tones intercede. This apparently was inspired by an incident in Story’s younger years, and judging by its haunting overtones it must have affected him greatly. Its sheer simplicity is what makes this so effective, aided and abetted by a stark cello figure, and I genuinely felt shivers at its ghostly sparseness. It gets into your system and refuses to let go, and one can only shiver at what the young Storey must have experienced to produce such a wonderfully evocative track.

Howlround’s ‘Crypt of St. John’ whistles in on cold winds that wrap themselves around your body, and grip you with icy fingers. Creatures not of this world fly about your ears, caterwauling and chirruping, with the intent of driving you mad with their constant noise. Have you wronged someone lately? Or have you dared to accuse someone of practising witchcraft? Perhaps you have now been caught in the web of their curse…and the only way you’ll ever escape their malign intentions are through either the bliss of madness or death.

‘Hag of Hair’ conjures up the usual stereotypical depictions of witches, ugly of visage and demeanour, living isolated lives in lonely stone cottages, furtively and secretively brewing up potions, and casting spells for the lovelorn and curses upon enemies. The point is that these images were malicious methods of controlling women: a good Christian woman would be meek whilst a headstrong one would obviously be an agent of the devil. Until fairly recently this was the sole archetype we possessed of the witch in popular culture, the stuff of children’s nightmares. Satori’s piece utilises low rumbles and engine whines to create an atmosphere that plays on that propagandistic perception and how it purposefully demeaned women.

Daniel William’s ‘Do you Believe in Witches?’ is next: a simple enough question – but, it has very important consequences, not least the cognitive dissonance the traditional image of what a witch ‘is’ would elicit today. In former centuries there would have been no such dissonance – witches and all their powers were real. The track begins with glitchy looping before a voice asks “Do you burn them witches?”, after which noisy swirls and ringing howls battle for supremacy, the latter winning out. It drifts into slight atonality, suggesting that very cognitive dissonance we feel at the mindset of our ancestors, and organ tones also suggest the part that the church played in condemning thousands of innocent women to a brutal death.

Michael Bonaventure continues the organ theme on ‘Coronach’, beginning with substantial bass drones that resonate through the solar plexus, leading to sawing echoes and reverberations. It builds into a lament of quiet power, a heartfelt dirge for someone who was perhaps a much-loved member of a community, who was maliciously accused of something they didn’t do, perhaps by a jealous neighbour or suitor. (A coronach is a Scottish song of mourning for the dead, as in Sir Walter Scott’s Legend of Montrose. This possesses a real sense of death unlooked for, due to the executioner’s rope, and yet another victim is mourned.) It’s hauntingly beautiful, a sad statement of the terror of the supernatural and its agents, and the consequences of being accused, whether rightly or wrongly.
‘The Discoverer’ is also haunting, but for entirely different reasons. Here, Sky High Diamonds use the accounts of ‘accusations’ against so-called witches, all of which beggar belief, the voices set against sold winds and howls. We marvel at the gullibility of these people, but simultaneously understand that in some cases the accusations were deflections to lead suspicion away from the accuser and a way of surviving.

Howlround make a second appearance in the form of ‘Peck in the Crown’, a watery, bubbling, and whispering track, perhaps the haunting voices of those drowned while being ducked to see if they were witches – if they were witches they would float, but if they drowned they were innocent. That was quite the logic eh?

Finally, Daniel Williams also makes a return, with ‘You can do Almost anything you Want with Them’, a chilling statement if ever there was one. This consists of hissy recordings of two male voices having a discussion, before tinkling tones floating on a whispering carpet of susurrating wind takes over along with guitar. Those winds seem to carry the souls of the victims of a consensual madness into a brighter tomorrow, assured that it was the insanity of men that caused their demise.

This is something of a testament, to the delusion of crowds and to the madness of frightened men. Women were seen as creatures to be controlled, chattels even, and any sign of independence was seen as a sign of the Devil, and anathema to the will of God. This is also a memorial, a remembrance to all those who were caught up in all the insanity and came off on the losing side, no matter how abominable it sounds to us now. A wonderful selection of piece, all united under a common theme, with an aesthetic that flows like a river between them all. Even though these acts were invited to participate and worked individually, they have created a kind of magic of their own – a compilation that deserves a wide audience and a place in everyone’s collection.

Available as a download and a limited CD from the Eighth Tower Records Bandcamp site:

Psymon Marshall 2019. 

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