After a striking and unique debut full-length that was preceded by the equally impressive The Grey Malkin tape EP, the Hare and the Moon have now followed up their efforts with Wood Witch. This new album is a tour-de-force (if such a term could be applied to a style so far from forceful) of dark folk music.
The Hare and the Moon reinterpret traditional British folk songs and poems in a radically different style. The usual acoustic guitar minstrelry is completely absent here—instead, sombre keys back up piano, organ, bells, woodwinds, strings, harp, and a bit of electric guitar, along with eerie field recordings of wind and other natural sounds. The band also makes good use of their always-artful approach to sampling, which is usually sourced from obscure ‘70s horror films and television shows. In the capable hands of The Grey Malkin, these bardic guitar-and-voice tunes and jigs are transformed into eerie pieces that fall close to dark ambient in feel and structure.
The vocalist, without name, is the only other member of the band, and her singing brings new meaning to the word ‘breathy’; it feels as though you’re standing a foot away from her as she sings. She is perfect for these vintage dark compositions, conjuring Hammer Horror and old Alfred Hitchcock films: a young innocent running through the woods, barefoot, whipped by branches and pursued by Christopher Lee.
For the first time, the Hare and the Moon is collaborating with several fellow Britons, and those songs are some of the best on the album. One of Neofolk’s elder statesmen, Tony Wakeford himself, makes an appearance on ‘The Willow Tree’, and it sounds like early-‘90s Sol Invictus all over again with all the grim, lo-fi glory they had in those days. Meanwhile, the more obscure (I hope not for long) God’s Little Eskimo delivers a chilling funeral dirge on ‘The Wife of Usher’s Well’. Backed by a low, rumbling piano line and not much else for most of the track, his layered voice sounds like a prophet of the end-times circa 1600. Compare this song with the version I first heard—Steeleye Span’s treatment on 1975’s All Around My Hat—and you’ll find proof, if any were needed of the leaps this band has made in its reinterpretations of the source material.
‘The Cruel Mother’, with its droning electric guitars, smacks more of the band’s first album, layered as it is with piano and the familiar horror-movie synths. Here the vocalist sounds like a cold-blooded oracle reciting the latest dire prophecy in a wide-eyed trance. Another treat on this album is ‘The Great Silkie of Sule Skerry’: the band has excelled at solo vocal treatments since ‘She Moves Through the Fair’ on The Grey Malkin, and this song carries on the tradition of that style. With no instrumental backing at all, the vocals soar like a bird through the empty sea air, carried only on the rich and generous reverb the band loves to use. This is where they are at their most traditional; for all the modern production, they can still connect back to the ancient feeling of this song.
As a bonus, with the first fifty copies of Wood Witch, a remix CD-R entitled There Were Faces in the Hedgerow by Melmoth the Wanderer is included. Melmoth utilizes songs from this album and a bit of older music from the band’s catalog, blending it all into a thirty-four-minute continuous medley, held together with some additional sounds and samples. Wood Witch is quite long as it is, clocking in at seventy-eight minutes, and this additional disc seems a bit much, but it makes for an interesting, if not very different, perspective on the music.
The Hare and the Moon have been busy creating an original approach to traditional folk. Neofolk acts have been doing sombre versions of old songs here and there since the early days, but many were still rooted in the one-man, one-guitar bardic tradition. Instead, the Hare and the Moon have imaginatively recreated these songs, investing them with a new life and simultaneously reaching back into the days when they were written, evoking the darkness and fear of nature and the unknown. Dispensing with what I always thought was the sine qua non of British folk music has given these grim songs a brand new authenticity.
Wood Witch is a treatment of—and a breaking with—tradition, and should be seen as a high mark for British folk music. It is an album that enraptures the listener, achieving the ambition of the greatest bands: the creation of a unique sonic realm. It is relentlessly creative yet still connected to the past; sometimes dense and layered and other times effectively minimal; as creepy and atmospheric as Hexentanz and as ethereal as Dead Can Dance, The Hare and the Moon have submitted their best work to date with Wood Witch. Highly recommended.
01) The Midnight Folk
02) The Bard of Eve
03) Come Unto the Corn
05) O Taste and See
06) Cruel Henry
07) The Wife of Usher’s Well
08) The Erl-King
09) The Great Silkie of Sule Skerry
10) Down by the Greenwood Side
11) The Cruel Mother
12) The Dream
13) O Death
14) The Gloaming
15) The Willow Tree
01) There Were Faces in the Hedgerow