Throwback bands can often be tricky beasts. Often they rely too heavily on imagery or other aesthetic tropes of the past. Rarely do you find a group who plant their roots firmly in the past yet still manage to sound fresh and exciting. Luckily, Jakob Brixen’s Danish folk collective, Mechanical Bird, is one of these rare examples. Their second full-length, Bitter Herbs, draws on several forms of modern folk music and synthesizes them with great proficiency and subtlety.
The album opens with “Seven Valleys”, a tune that takes traditional melody, plucked on banjo, and blends it with the best of British acid-folk, creating an at-once rousing and droning affair centered around the picked melody and lyrics (concerning a faraway love, an essential ingredient in any folk album) with a cacophony of strings, chimes, and other sounds that tidally fade in and out where appropriate. One is reminded of an early Steeleye Span song, combined with a touch of Americana, courtesy of a band like Wovenhand.
The album’s title track picks up the pace with the first use of a steady rock drum beat. Brixen’s strummed guitars and engaging voice move along with driving bass guitar and electric organ. The chorus is extremely catchy and demands to be sung along to. The track also includes a flourishing flute performance, courtesy of Sarah Hepburn, which lends some colour to an admittedly simple song structure. However, Mechanical Bird knows when simplicity is effective. Only what needs to be heard is present.
After a decidedly rousing couple of opening songs, the album takes its first shift in tone. The band introduces more hushed tones on “A Lilac Scent” and “Tamarisk Tree”, taking more from the playbook of In Gowan Ring than the usually rocking moments on Bitter Herbs. In fact, the up-tempo songs become the odd-ones-out in the album’s grand scheme. “The Incredible Sadness” (an ironically upbeat song) is the last song that has the sort of jangly, forward-pushing sound of the album’s early material.
The remainder of the songs descend deeper and deeper into the more traditionally influenced sounds of psychedelic folk. Comparing “Like Almond” or “A Silvery Coffer” (which begins with the fantastic lyric “Now that I’m dead I’ll return all the things that you gave me at Scarborough Fair”) to Kiss the Anus of a Black Cat’s early material would not be far off.
There are only a few downsides to Bitter Herbs. Once past the half-way point of the album, the songs lack the dynamic ups and downs of the first half, which makes the rest of the record drag on a little too much. The only other criticism is an observation of personal taste, but an important notation nonetheless: I don’t hear anything particularly Danish about Mechanical Bird. Brixen even loses his accent while singing. While this isn’t necessarily a problem, it adds an important layer to the music when a folk band’s nationality colours it even slightly. It is something that can make one go from liking an album to loving it. In this case, Mechanical Bird stands firmly in the British realm of psychedelia, and they do it exceedingly well.
01) Seven Valleys
02) Bitter Herbs
03) A Lilac Scent
04) Tamarisk Tree
05) Silvery Coffer
06) The Incredible Sadness
07) Like Almond
09) The Seas Will Turn against Me