With the proliferation of the ubiquitous folk genres, there are very few that have found balance within the traditional folk sound. It seems that any band representing themselves as folk often have an extra prefix or suffix attached; post-, neo-, or -metal, for example. The newest offering in a long road of studio albums from Stone Breath, Spear of Flame, Horse of Air, rides a gentle balance between a reconfigurations of timeless classics and an almost avant-garde approach to the genre itself.
A consistent definition of traditional folk music is elusive. The terms folk music, folk song, and folk dance are comparatively recent expressions. They are extensions of the term folklore, which was coined in 1846 by the English antiquarian William Thoms to describe “the traditions, customs, and superstitions of the uncultured classes.” The term is further derived from the German expression Volk, in the sense of “the people as a whole” as applied to popular and national music by Johann Gottfried Herder and the German Romantics over half a century earlier.
So, as with its own vague description of its genre specifics, Stone Breath brings an interesting, yet altogether expected sound to the fore. While the individual performances are remarkable in their intricacy, the theme of Spear of Flame, Horse of Air is fairly wide and open. One definite exception to this rule is the opening track, “Crazy Man Michael” — a classic that appears to have infinite renditions, the most notable of which (up until now) was that performed by Sol Invictus some years ago. This version brings together Timothy Renner‘s far-reaching grasp of stringed instruments to the forefront. The ensemble certainly brings their best forward in the recreation of a timeless tale of madness, death, and the sea.
There is certainly a recurring theme of madness present on this LP, especially the opening track and the two final Bedlam tracks. The fact that these tales are spun in such a natural way really drives them deeper into the soul of the listener. There is a difference between, for example, creeping horror and shock gore. Stone Breath captures the essence of the former force, surely creating a crepuscular ambience and an ageless feel to the album as a whole.
Within the realm of the folk music revolution, some tracks are preferred to others, as their stories and revelations are more potent and sincere than others, though all make together a grouping of nostalgia and pensive thought. At once familiar and soothing, the strains of “How should I your True Love Know?” carry well within the wispy backs and auric atmosphere of a timeless tale. Appearing first in the Shakespeare play Hamlet, this simple and touching refrain holds its old-world charm even into this new Age.
In like vein, “Tom of Bedlam’s Song” reeks of old myth and legend. The term “Tom O’ Bedlam” was used in Early Modern Britain and, later, to describe beggars and vagrants who had or feigned mental illness. It was apparently first published in 1720 by Thomas d’Urfey in his Wit and Mirth, or Pills to Purge Melancholy. “Maudlin” was a form of Mary Magdalene. Speaking of these released captives, set out to make a living from begging and the occasional song, as shown:
“Still I sing bonny boys, bonny mad boys / Bedlam boys are bonny / For they all go bare and they live by the air / And they want no drink or money.”
In form of reality, Stone Breath captures not only the wording, but the feel behind this small corner of history, the long-suffering song brought airily up through the centuries, and into the light of the current times. Though it is hard to exactly gauge the sound of the original, one can certainly appreciate the natural, acoustic strumming and atmosphere that Tim & Co. bring to the table. One of the more enjoyable tracks on the record, it bookends the completed work quite nicely, bringing to an end a wonderful compilation of timeless classics.
As much as I enjoyed this album, it still carries that “special occasion” feel to it. However, when I bring it out, I’m sure never to be disappointed at the result. Solid effort, very solid album.
A1) Crazy Man Michael
A2) The False Lady
A3) The Unquiet Grave
A4) Mad Song
B1) How should I your True Love Know?
B2) A Maid in Bedlam
B3) Tom of Bedlam’s Song