Ian Humberstone and David Chatton Barker have done it again. Two years have passed since Theo Brown and the Folklore of Dartmoor, and many fine sets have been released by Folklore Tapes since then, but Black Dog Traditions of England is the heir apparent to that excellent release. Once again, the attention to detail is astounding, from historical research to execution: a multi-media treat, a treasure trove in a black box.
This release is the first in a new series called Occultural Creatures. Local legends of the black dog of England are found in various hamlets and towns: an actual creature as well as a metaphorical beast. Winston Churchill called the black dog Depression, but these black dogs are more than mere phantasm. Humberstone’s interest in the subject goes back at least a decade, and he has collected numerous stories in the 80-page booklet that accompanies the release, calling it “a nocturnal terror, a prowling and ill-omened animation of the witching-hour.” Narrators give voice to the legends: Peter Dench speaks of a black dog ghost that haunts a local pub, while Malcolm Busby advises those who see Black Shuck to close their eyes, lest they die within a year. Richard Jones explains that the Black Dog of Newgate, “a hideous foreteller of death”, first appeared when cannibals ate a sorcerer.
These narrations are accompanied by field recordings taken around the haunts of the dark creatures: birds and bells, crosswalks and cross winds. Humberstone and Barker then add their own peculiar music: saw frames, clock gongs, toy piano coils. Tape loops and delay contribute a sense of the spectral. It all adds up to a mystical listening experience, one that disorients with its sense of unfamiliarity. One can almost hear the “shapes that are darker than the surrounding night” as they move closer to the speakers, padding on silent feet, growling delayed warnings, preparing to pounce. It’s especially fun to read the chapter book while listening to the corresponding tracks. The growing volume of “The Barquest of Dob Park Lodge,” conjures aural images of the “strange and unearthly noises (that) emanate(d) from the subterranean cavern,” while the church bells of “The Legend of Black Vaughn” connect to the twelve men reading twelve Bibles in the booklet’s exorcism story and the “imps, fairies and goblins” of “The Barguest of Troller’s Gill” are personified by cooing trills and playful plinks.
The box set’s parfait is the 10-minute DVD, which contains David Chatton Barker’s distressed, “rust degraded” 16mm film, capturing ephemera found on-scene. This colorful, abstract treat veers away from traditional images, save for the occasional pub, church, or black dog wind vane. For the most part, Barker’s work creates its own impressions. The aqua hues are astonishing, reminiscent of ice melt seen from a plane. The video mix is of special note, eschewing narration in favor of pure sound. While it’s not streaming online, one can get a fair sense of Barker’s palette from Only Timelessness, an earlier work. When combined with the LP, the booklet and the posters, this hypnotic video puts Folklore Tapes’ box set over the top; it’s one of the year’s best releases to date. (Richard Allen)