This box set is an astonishment: a multi-format release so comprehensive that one wonders at the time, effort and love that were required to create it. The sixth and most elaborate of the Folklore Tapes series, Theo Brown and the Folklore of Dartmoor provides multiple hours of entertainment and makes history and folklore fun and intriguing. As thorough as the collection may be, after enjoying its contents ~ 7 x 7″ records, a thoroughly researched booklet, a set of woodcut print postcards, a DVD, a map and a local flower ~ one still wants to learn more. Fortunately, the previous five installments are streaming online, waiting to cast their dark spells on unsuspecting audiences.
Yes, this is a dark release, although the darkness of the project is offset by its presentation. The music is filled with drones and beats, a bit lo-fi, like a dusty gramophone, augmented by sound effects: church bells, opening doors, barroom glasses. This is the sound of seven villages, each awarded an image and slab of vinyl. Inspired by historian Theo Brown’s under appreciated art and writing, Humberstone and Chatton launched a deeper inquiry into the background of these villages, excavating tiny facts and surrounding them with sonic treasures. The best mix may be the video mix, an uninterrupted journey that comes across as a soundscape. Viewers also have the choice of a silent version, with the prompt, “Use the records to create your own soundtrack.”
The region-free video is a marvel of blended images: 8mm film that was buried in its subject matter, then retrieved and collated. Watching is like flipping though multiple photo books and film stock in transparency form. The deepest colors pop out against the grainier tones: deep purples and greens, splattered around the edges. On occasion, the music matches the images (for example, organ-church-bell-cemetery), but for the most part the work is a study in texture and mood. The hypnotizing collage provides a view of a world that did and did not exist. As tactile as it is otherworldly, the title “Only Timelessness” is well-chosen, perfectly suited to the material.
One hesitates to call the music “haunted”, although hauntology is one of its influences. The sounds of wind, chains, and gargled voices are met by deep drums and deserted chimes. As one flips each 7″ for the first time, one feels a sense of foreboding: will playing these records invite spirits into the house? Are they already here? And yet, the draw is irresistible. The black circles are the lines of salt we are taught to preserve, the ouija board we are told to avoid, the doll we should never, ever touch. And yet we do. Still a sweetness shines through on tracks like “Postbridge: The Snaily House”, in which the creaking door and jangling metal are matched by a tuneful piano.
Should we be afraid? The booklet’s extended definition of “folklore” includes references to black dogs, witches and suicides, but also to crosses and home cures. Wistman’s Wood is described as “the home of the whisht hounds”, while Merripit is visited by a “sow and litter phantom”. Yet in another place, an offering for the pixies is enough to ward off evil. The clash between religion and superstition is brought to the fore throughout the set. While religion often claims that superstition is meaningless, many claim that religion is a superstition. Each shares a common belief: that a world exists beyond our ken. Theo Brown and the Folklore of Dartmoor brings this belief into sharp focus; one begins to feel the spirit world, or at least believe that one is beginning to feel the spirit world. The line is porous.
Arriving on the heels of the previously-reviewed Chthonic Cities, as well as Barker’s wonderful Twelve Stations, Theo Brown cements Folklore Tapes’ reputation as one of the finest labels around. The only downside: these releases sell out fast. The upside: we expect more. If you see one ~ any one ~ buy it immediately. Or start digging holes in Dartmoor, because the next release may still be underground, waiting to be unearthed. (Richard Allen)