I’ve only heard a passing mention of so-called “Dark Folk” music, and until now I never really considered the entertainment value of earthy melodies about death, ghosts, pagan gods and occult mysteries… but the more I thought about it, the more it seemed a natural fit. After all, the concept of horror and the unknown is as old as human creativity itself, and probably dates back to the first cave paintings and eerie chants around the firelight… and there’s something about the primal rhythms, vintage instrumentation and timeless vocals of so-called “Neoclassical Darkwave” groups like Arcana (one of my all-time favorites), Dead Can Dance, Estampie, Qntal, Dark Sanctuary and Mirabilis that puts you in the mind of chilling moonlit rituals in the deepest, darkest woods.
Now that I’ve heard Unto Ashes’ new CD The Blood of My Lady – which is set for release next Tuesday from Projekt Records – I’d definitely add them to this list. Read on, and learn what ethereal strains may echo through thee waiting earbuds!
Formed over a decade ago in New York City by multi-instrumentalist Michael Laird, Unto Ashes has featured a revolving group of collaborators over the years, blending traditional folk instruments like hammered dulcimer, violin & cello, hurdy-gurdy, the Persian saz (a kind of long-necked lute) and various indigenous percussion with electronic elements like synthesizers and electric guitars. For this album, the group scaled back most of the modern aspects to put more emphasis on old-school instrumentation.
Laird reportedly composed all the tracks from The Blood of My Lady alone, while sequestered within a Victorian house in rural New York during a period of emotional turmoil. But that didn’t stop him from seeking musical contributors from several countries – including legendary Danish rocker Kim Larsen, German experimental outfit Sonne Hagal and acclaimed soprano Josie Smith.
The result is what Laird and company describe as “an album of thirteen spells conjured for The Lady,” which comes across like a ritualized meditation on the dark and chaotic forces of man and nature, love and death. It’s a simpler, more elemental work that calls back to the group’s earliest recordings, particularly their first full-length release Moon Oppose Moon.
The title track is divided into two separate movements – the first performed primarily by Laird, the other by Larsen – which serve to bookend the album with a tragic theme of lost love. Interestingly, Laird’s rendition bears a striking similarity to some of the quieter songs from early Peter Gabriel-era Genesis, while Larsen brings more than a hint of Lou Reed to the table. The tracks framed between these two songs represent a wide assortment of moods and styles – from the somber ballad “Who Has Seen the Wind,” the Michael Nyman-like “For All My Broken Promises” and the quietly regal “The River and the Hawk,” to the deceptively gentle-sounding anthem “Vengeance.” Pastoral instrumentals like cello solo “The Tomb of Your Remains” and warm piano piece “She is Everywhere and Nowhere” add some midnight-meditation moments.
The haunting ambient swells, swirls and distant bell-tones that accompany the beautiful but unsettling “I Will Lead You Down” move to front-and-center in the warm synth pulses of “Our Palace of Ice,” which transitions into the goosebump-inducing spoken-word piece “A Cold Wind (February).” This middle trio of tracks to me represents the full realization of the haunted mood I believe Laird was striving for here, and prove that a perfectly Gothic tone can be achieved without a lot of glammy posturing.
It’s not all hushed, melancholy tones, however; the vigorous jingling bells, horns and odd vocals of German-language march “Echos in den Wald” manage to be eccentrically upbeat and sort of creepy at the same time, and there’s even an inventive acoustic-guitar cover of Depeche Mode’s “Fly on the Windscreen” that fits nicely with the band’s sex & death themes (“Death is everywhere/There are lambs for the slaughter… Come here, kiss me now”).
There’s a haunting vibe to these thirteen “spells” that transports you to another time and place… and not necessarily a safe place, either. As you listen, you get a sense of shadows being cast by fading firelight, imagery that works its way into your mind over the album’s 43 minutes, and for me it results in a more lights-out, incense-burning experience than, say, casual dinnertime background music (although those are usually one and the same at my house). It doesn’t aim to unsettle you immediately, but you can feel the darkness creeping in around the edges of your perception.
It goes to show that the right artist can pull off subtle but very real chills with a touch of class – think of it as the sonic equivalent of Carl Dreyer’s surreal, dreamlike 1932 film Vampyr. If low-key vintage chills are not your poison, then this probably won’t win you over… but if you’re craving a sense of quiet, elusive dread, you’ll definitely want to check this one out.