Roy Wilkinson reviews a powerful amalgam of words and music, headed by East Anglia-based violinist Laura Cannell and the comedian Stewart Lee.
The actress Joan Collins has a favourite piece of temporal wisdom: “The past is history, the future a mystery and today is a gift. Why else would it be called the present?” But, recent happy event in North America notwithstanding, lately the present hasn’t seemed the optimum place to be. It’s understandable that numbers of musicians and writers have abandoned the sensory overload of the digitised 21st century, swapping this for ancient folklore and older, more organic folk modes. At their most unconvincing, such searches for a deep collective past can sometimes seem like a gap year in fifth-century Wessex. But no such Dark Ages tom-tittery colours These Feral Lands Volume 1.
Anyone who’s seen and heard Laura Cannell playing overbowed violin will know she’s not one for the whimsically picturesque. It’s a technique where the wooden part of the bow passes underneath the instrument; the hair of the bow pulling over several strings at once. It’s a visceral sound – circling around discordance, while firing out sharp harmonics and an undertow of atavistic drones. Stewart Lee was maybe more of an unknown quantity here, but such a committed fan of The Fall was unlikely to descend into the feeble and precious. His spoken-word narratives come in a voice with an unplaceable latter-day yeoman mood, a tone that casually draws you into these stories – a hugely likeable and unaffected register that even recalls the late Bob Copper of Copper Family fame.
The basis of the music is a violin improvisation Cannell played while watching a buzzard in flight. On the opening ‘Barsham Light’, Lee adds a multi-part spoken recitation, evoking some homespun winter-equinox miracle in an East Anglian church. On ‘Wrekin’, Lee depicts Shropshire geography, and the legend of the giant Gwendol Wrekin, who is said to have enacted fatal mischief in the area. Lee also brings in a more contemporary boogie man – the masked TV wrestler Kendo Nagasaki. Groundhogs frontman Tony McPhee is also cited, while Cannell and cellist Kate Ellis of Ireland’s Crash Ensemble fire up a storm-force strings breakdown.
Ellis also features on the instrumentals ‘Inhabited: The Last Iceni Wolf’ and ‘Inhabited: The Last Wolf In Ireland’, pieces so spikily invigorating they act as ear-cleansing sonic sorbets. On ‘Vessel’ another voice takes over the narrative strand – writer and broadcaster Jennifer Lucy Allan imagining a pregnant prehistoric woman kneading a handful of clay into a representation of her own fertility. The album closes with an instrumental piece from Polly Wright, played on a one-pound harmonium. As with the rest of these recordings, timbre is manifest – tough and free of twee, authoritative in whatever tense.
These Feral Lands Volume 1 is out now on Brawl Records.