There was a time not so long ago that receiving a promo package from the long-running Spanish imprint Caustic Records likely meant that our writers were in for a heavy dose of rhythmic industrial or virtually any other breed of dark electro, what with long-standing partnerships with projects like HIV+, Pail, Tannhauser, Plasmodivm, and others. Indeed, even the last review for the label that was featured here on the Heathen Harvest Periodical highlighted the newly risen neofolk project Har Belex, a collaboration between Caustic Records founder Manix S. and Salva Mainem, a seminal figure in Spanish synthpop and EBM through his Culture Kultür project, which was personally highly influential in my youth. That very release is ironically also what has given credence to a new chapter for this label that spotlights a side of their efforts that has always been present through artists like Der Blaue Reiter and Narsilion, but has only rarely been focused upon. Now with a beautifully packaged new compilation in Places, Caustic Records is paying homage to both their humble past and to new beginnings by featuring exclusive tracks from long-time yet relatively unproductive favorites in Oniric and Fayrierie alongside some of neofolk’s most potent recent and veteran contributors in Sangre de Muerdago, Darkwood, and Sieben.
Places will no doubt be something of a curiosity for many fans of the genre. Few compilations have ever started out so strong through the first half, with this particular example opening up with one of the most celebrated Germanic neofolk artists still active today, Darkwood. As should be expected, Darkwood continue their legacy of impeccably crafted string-and-acoustic-driven neofolk with an alternate mix/rerecording of the track “Stiller Bund,” which was originally featured over a decade ago on Weltenwende. Henryk Vogel‘s usually unmistakably commanding vocal style welcomes the listener with somber tone, leading the way through gates and down the paths of the artists to follow. Steinklang Industries takes the lead for the following two tracks of alpine folk from Sturmpercht and Falkenstein, who are both well-known and highly respects bands in their own right from the same region, and in similar form to their predecessor offer high-quality, lushly melodic creations. If Sturmpercht’s opening guitar chord progression makes your ears perk up, you aren’t the only one. It sounds dangerously close to The Handsome Family‘s now famous “Far from Any Road,” though the track quickly moves towards a more naturalistic, vaguely tribal direction that many fans of the band have come to love. Falkenstein’s offering isn’t far off the mark, but features a much more polished sound and a lovely recurring harmonized flute melody. Leaving the Germanic influences behind are the Italian Argine with a hauntingly familiar guitar melody that, for the life of me, I cannot remember where I have heard previously. It’s a calm, tender track with near-whispered vocals sung in their native tongue that bookend a perfect four-track run under a similar mood to open the compilation.
It’s clear from this point forward though that the compilation is about to lift off from its obviously beauty-based foundations with the coming of Sieben‘s forward-thinking loop-based music, and as usual, Matt Howden eagerly delivers with impressive rhythm and his trademark absurdly cerebral approach to composition. Unfortunately, it is beyond this point when the quality downturn for the compilation begins to occur. While Har Belex get through their track with as much quality as they offered on their split with Fragile, the same impressive emotional spirit doesn’t seem present, at least not as clearly. Beyond this, more painful moments include Strydwolf‘s continued inability to nail down vocal harmonies, Fragile’s extravagant and talented compositions that are relentlessly plagued by woefully performed whispered vocals (they’d be better off as an instrumental project at this point), Hiperborei in general, and Fayrierie‘s over-the-top dramatic approach. I, of course, encourage strong vocal approaches as this disinterested unmoving style that neofolk has become synonymous with has worn out its welcome, but this really does just go quite too far. Pleasant unexpected surprises include Majdanek Waltz‘s incredible progressive flute melodies, Sangre de Muerdago’s simplified yet ever-evolving approach, and Stillme‘s wonderfully dreamy folk-ambiance. Even more impressive is that the latter artist was also responsible for the visuals for Places, which are every bit as atmospheric and majestic as even the best musical performances.
For the sake of not boring the reader, instead of covering every single track, we’ll hope it’s sufficient enough to say that each artist here brings their own character to the table, but each is also obviously inextricably linked through the genres in which they explore and the compilation’s own thematic premise of aurally exploring a specific location that is, for an undefined reason, important and/or inspirational to the artist at hand. This—along with the fact that some of the smaller cursive script used in the booklet is almost, if not entirely, illegible—is actually a fairly large blow to Places as a whole. The thematic approach is a wonderful idea and would have made for a fantastic album had it been executed better, and though it is indeed present for a couple of bands, to not ask each artist to give some reasoning for their choice of place is an oversight that can’t be ignored. It’s a fundamental element, as the first question that I asked myself after beginning to spin the disc was, “Why were these three beech trees in Germany’s Hutewald Halloh so important to Darkwood?” Perhaps the answer is obvious, but in the end, I’ll likely never know.
Unfortunate downturns aside, Places is mostly a stunning collection of some of the most talented and inspiring musicians that neofolk has to offer today. You might have to hit the skip button a few times towards the end, but certainly the bulk of the first half of exclusive tracks alone makes this compilation an attractive addition to any collection of neofolk music. If nothing else, Stillme’s artwork is a masterful achievement and will look lovely out and about in one’s home.
01) Darkwood – Stiller Bund
02) Sturmpercht – Alpenleben
03) Falkenstein – Rübezahl
04) Argine – Distesa
05) Sieben – Parkhill, Sheffield
06) Har Belex – Ruins of Gebara
07) Strydwolf – Die Stadt am Meer
08) Sangre de Muerdago – Adeus Ós Dias Dourados
09) Oniric – Pierrot in the Woods
10) Fragile – Water Reflections
11) Majdanek Waltz – Время Мертвых Садов
12) Fayrierie – Lonely Seasons
13) Hiperborei – Under the Water
14) Stillme – Mejillas de Tierra