“The morbid, black and often erotic world of the witch” – it’s an ear-catching statement that appears on an early track on Secret Rites, the latest release from Cumbria-based The Heartwood Institute. For a moment, it feels as if the album is going to fully immerse itself in the dark arts, but a little investigation reveals that the voice running throughout the track is from the trailer of the film Witchcraft 70, an exploitation B-movie which claims to show black magic rites across the globe in such satanic hot-spots as New Orleans, Rio de Janeiro, California and, er, Southampton. The innocent ears of the listener can thus be protected by the knowledge that this is all a little bit tongue-in-cheek and we can enjoy the music and the textures of the sampled voices without worrying that we might end up sacrificing the pet cat to Satan and all his little wizards (which appears to be the case in the Witchcraft 70 trailer).
The Heartwood Institute itself is the work of Jonathan Sharp, whose day job is as a sound designer and composer of library music. It is perhaps no surprise that some of this work creeps into the after hours project and there are elements that share a common lineage to other producers of library music and hauntological work, such as Mordant Music and most of the Ghost Box label’s line-up. Secret Rites is not merely here to make up the numbers, though; it’s thoughtfully melodic and really well produced, full of clever little touches that pop up unexpectedly over multiple listens. The choice of samples also contribute towards the mood; Sharp goes beyond hexploitation movie trailers and gathers chants, spells and meditations on goddesses. These voices are always fully integrated into the music; they don’t feel like they have been welded onto the arrangement at the end of the process but were there throughout. Equally the plain instrumental versions might feel a little bare without them.
This is arguably the most complete, and fully realised work from The Heartwood Institute to date; there are tunes a-plenty in the grooves and the mood is cohesive and consistent, right up to the closing statement from (presumably) a witchcraft survivor: “I’m never going back again”. It’s not a phrase you would associate when listening to the album – you’ll want to revisit the work on a regular basis. Just make sure the cat is out of the way before succumbing to its persuasive charms.