Folklore Tapes is one of the industry’s most distinctive labels. Their ongoing mission is to “research and soundtrack” the traditions of Devon, Lancashire and outlying areas, and to present the results in bespoke editions: hardback books, booklets and cassettes. Their mixture of myth, folklore and history is present on every release: specific topics, unusual instrumentation, dialogue snippets and a DIY ethic. The result should appeal to historian, occultist and music fan alike. Chthonic Cities is their latest triumph, a release that we’ve already written about in part, as it contains an expanded version of Rob St. John & Tommy Perman‘s Water of Life, which originally arrived as a lovely 7″ in its own dynamic packaging. Joining the duo on the other side of the tape: Carl Turney & Brian Campbell, whose side-long piece “The Williamson Tunnels” makes an instinctive pairing, a meeting of minds on plastic.
The closest corollary to Chthonic Cities is Clay Pipe Music’s tape and mini-book set Tyneham House, which possesses a sense of whimsy along with its historical allure. In both tracks, narration cements the association. The echoed female voice that introduces “The Williamson Tunnels” sounds like that of a hijacked tour guide. All will be well, but not yet. First come footfalls, sport cries and rustles of cymbal, plus a stuttered lesson in topography and oral tradition. These are the actual Williamson tunnels we hear, although the visitors are not always respectful. The music is played back below ground: the Liverpool below the Liverpool we know. And once it gets going, look out. From folk origins arises an incredible psychedelic free-form freakout, an extension of the duo’s work in the above-ground band CLINIC. Yes, that CLINIC. Field recordings may be the new post-punk. But by the end, it’s back to folk, with a sweet a cappella about Sleepytown. This song will find its partner in “The Shellycoat”, which closes Side B; the quieting of the piece is also a perfect setup for that side’s gentle beginning.
The full version of Water of Life is another treasure, listed as an eight-part suite. What was once intriguing is now immersive; with half an hour to work with, the duo presents an even wider array of sounds. The field recordings are still present, but it’s more accurate to call this an experimental work, as the influences are so diverse. The full work, like the 7″, begins with the sound of water, but this version includes a lecture about the Edinburgh springs, a match to the tour guide of “The Williamson Tunnels”. A sentence about the incursion of the suburbs recalls Jetsam & Gareth E. Rees’ A Dream Life of Hackney Marshes; great minds think alike. As to the music, it’s more restrained than that of Turney & Campbell, but provides a perfect balance, like the stream to the air. For long stretches (especially a lovely swatch in the sixth and seventh minutes), the field recordings rise like stalks while the instrumentation sinks like silt. Serving as connective tissue, the burbling, peeping tones link the edges of the first thirteen minutes so that they come across as a seamless whole. The center is all stream, a crossing point for visitor and home listener alike. From the banks rises a sweet duet of harmonium and autoharp, evoking images of spackled sunshine and lazy ladybugs. Then it’s back to the music of the 7″, a treat for completists as the tail of “The Shellycoat” extends into “Seafield Sewage Works”, bringing the sound back to the source. One listens to the deck hum, hoping for more; but only the click remains. (Richard Allen)