Friday, January 9, 2015

Wooden Wand & The Vanishing Voice
Buck Dharma
The Flood
(both Troubleman Unlimited)
Wooden Wand
Harem of the Sundrum & The Witness Figg
(Soft Abuse)
Song To Comus: The Complete Collection
Village Voice, 2004

by Simon Reynolds

It’s the “what’s it all about” factor. I’m digging this free folk stuff as pure sound, but the movement’s unwritten manifesto is harder to get a grip on, and, in my (possibly atypical) case, that’s always an impediment to buying into a scene wholeheartedly. Perhaps that’s why I literally don’t buy it (the f-folk scraps I have were all acquired by, erm, other means, shall we say). Just as well, perhaps: mapping this genre properly would entail a financial bloodbath, given its norm of incontinent productivity. Check the intimidating discographic delta-- cassettes, lathe-cut 7 inch singles, 3-inch CDs--issuing [ ] from a single group, Wooden Wand & The Vanishing Voice, plus extended family of side projects, in just two years of existence. This season alone has seen Wooden Wand’s solo debut and two re-releases of small-run vinyl-only albums (XIA) and Buck Dharma), while an all-new Vanishing Voice full length , The Flood, is due November.

“Pure sound” assessment first: “free folk” verges on a misnomer. As genre expert Jon Dale points out, it’s a highly recombinant style whose warp’n’weft includes threads of not just traditional music but West Coast acid rock, prog, free jazz, Dead C-style noise,  musique concrete, and “outsider” minstrels such as Jandek.  XIA0’s best tracks, “Caribou Christ in the Great Void” and “Return of the Nose” resemble nothing so much as the raga-rock trance and narcotic wah-wah torpor of  “We Will Fall” by The Stooges, while Dharma’s  Satya Sai Baba Scuppety plays ‘Reverse Jam Band’” is a strange shimmer-slither of a keyboard etude, like Morton Subotnik turning into the Blob. If  Vanishing Voice have anything like a standard-mode, it’s the long pieces like “Weird Wisteria Tangles Carrion Christ But Intends No Harm” (and yes, the track titles are major stumbling block to full-on fandom) or the 14-minute “Satya Sai Sweetback Plays ‘Oxblood Boots’,” which closes The Flood. Cantering calvacades of just-barely-integrated instrumentation (rustling bells, tunelessly parping woodwinds, Cale-like drones, listless percussion, thrumming steel-cable bass-drones, and so forth), these tracks either dissipate into oxbow lakes of abstraction or gradually accumulate disparate jetsam into tripnotic juggernauts. Still, we’re not exactly talking “Scarborough Fair” here, and the only truly folksy element is a slight bias toward sounds of acoustic provenance.

But what’s it all about, Alfie? I fear that Wand (real name, James Toth) hits the nail on the head with his self-description as “spiritual dilettante.” The f-folk genre gestures at the shamanic and visionary, but in this easy-going way that feels not so much syncretic as plain eclectic. But isn’t the spiritual path actually hard work, a discipline? When Vanishing Voice overtly invoke the transcendental, it can come over schlocky, the group’s intermittent female vocalist Satya Sai Baba Scuppety ululating lines like “I sought the truth so long” in a voice so piercingly pure-toned and mystical-me the effect verges on parodic. On Dharma’s “Wicked World,” Toth mutters like a bum/seer whose desolation-row jeremiad  (“the mystical power of the beautiful flower has turned sour”) is ignored by passers-by. On his solo album, there’s similar penchant for parable and prophecy (Toth’s a Scripture-fan) but the accompaniment is pared-back minstrelry elevated by an exquisite attentiveness to the creak-glisten textures of semi-acoustic guitar. “Spiritual Inmate” distils a hallmark attribute of f-folk that highlights its debts to the Beat movement: condescension toward the benighted square, who’s “passing so much beauty/passing on so much beauty” because he’s, like, imprisoned by his own obsession “with protection.”

It’s shtick, really, this idea of seeing clear because you’re outside society, but then so are other “performative enactments of the authentic” like gangsta or grime, so nothing wrong with that. This element of theater can also be seen in a group regarded by many f-folks as an illustrious ancestor, Comus, whose 1971 album First Utterance has just been reissued in a double-CD that scoops up everything else the UK outfit recorded in its brief existence. That Bowie was a Comus supporter seems especially revealing. This isn’t British traditional music in the Martin Carthy sense (unadorned and faithful) but closer to Jethro Tull: ripe, rustic-flavored rock with frenetic hand-percussion a la Tyrannosaurus Rex and orchestrated elements redolent of Italo-horror soundtrack proggers Goblin. Roger Wooton’s vibrato-rattling cackle and frolicking woodwinds conjure an indeterminately pre-industrial Albion, all gibbets and gargoyles, merlins and may poles and maidenheads. A tale of deflowering and murder, “Drip Drip” is all the more creepy for the grotesque tenderness with which Wooton delivers lines like “your lovely body soon caked with mud/as I carry you to your grave/my arms, your hearse” (the last line borrowed by black metal outfit Opeth for an album title). On “Song To Comus” itself, his hideously capering voice impersonates a Pan-like satyr
whose piping music lures “an enchanted damsel” to his forest lair of depravity. First Utterance courts absurdity, but like a great horror movie (and The Wickerman would be the apposite reference) it draws you in completely. Wooton brings a conviction to his roles as warlock/sprite/all-purpose bucolic bogeyman that takes it beyond play-acting. Whereas with Wooden Wand there’s still a faint aura of make-believe, even put-on. Such that, as absorbing as the sonix can be,  I still don’t… quite… buy it.

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