Thursday, August 04, 2005

Psych folk / wyrd folk music part two

The Evolution of New Wyrd Folk Music by Mark Coyle

Chapter 2 - All The Stars Are Waking Now

UK underground artists who appreciated folk music were starting to emerge, informed by interests in the evolution of society, spiritual development, the gothic and sometimes magical exploration.

In particular the inspirational song-writer performer David Tibet previously of Psychic TV and 23 Skidoo with his band-project Current 93 originally created a series of personal, exploratory, atmospheric albums from the mid-1980s onwards that fused folk, gothic (in the original sense of the word), strong use of imagery and experimentation. New comers should check out 1992 album ‘Thunder Perfect Mind’ as good introduction to what became tagged ‘apocalyptic-folk’. So unique and new was his sound and style that it inevitably influenced others both in the UK and overseas. However David Michael (dropping the 'Tibet' name) is now taking Current 93 in a new direction, towards a positive, life embracing approach that moves on from the earlier explorations.

Around this time a number of UK artists emerged with elements of this apocalyptic folk music such as Death In June. Tony Wakeford of the band subsequently left and formed the band Sol Invictus charting his own personal explorations, also playing in Current 93. These artists produce highly conceptualised works that are not folk based but use elements of the form mixed with spiritual and complex political thought. Also worth checking out from this era are The Revolutionary Army Of The Infant Jesus who also produced intoxicated, doom filled folk that is surprisingly Christian in outlook.

Also associated with David Tibet back in the early 1990s and having contributed to Current 93 albums were a number of artists. Fire and Ice is a band led by Ian Read also sometimes of Sol Invictus and Michael Cashmore’s Nature And Organisation. Nature & Organisation did a couple of albums in particular ‘Beauty Reaps The Blood Of Solitude’ which contained dark apocalyptic folk and a definitive version of Willow’s Song from
The Wicker Man at a time when the original was more or less unavailable. Pantaleimon also supported initially by Tibet recorded lovely, largely instrumental albums of drifting, almost ambient folk.

The early imagery of some of the so called 'apocalyptic folk' is based on a feeling that Western society has failed and that rampant capitalism is removing our humanity. They were exploring a feeling that Western society is in a consumer goods fed slumber, removing the free will of the people and hence their ability to realise personal potential. Therefore the people need confronting out of their complacency and to challenge the decline of their society. The decline of the 'West' is at the heart of the music and the alternative model offered by a diverse Europe in contrast to the USA approach is explored. However often all forms of oppression such as political bureaucracy or organised religion are seen as part of the problem. There is a feeling that the simpler forms of existence prior to modern complex society may be a more viable approach to living. This decline of society, a removal of societal structures back to simpler models is the 'apocalypse' at the heart of the music. Over time this generalisation fell away and artists began a long personal journey not only into the state of their external environment but also regarding their own evolution as people, the internal drives and frustrations inherent within them.

It is impossible now to generalise, each artist is expressing a personal approach or ethos. The level of frustration and anger by the artists varies, some use allegorical imagery and a need for spiritual reawakening via non-conformist techniques as their approach. Other are more direct and see this as a battle of wills, showing people the oppressed society they live in via totalitarian imagery, with some artists talking about renewed European war to confront this hypnosis over the populace and revival of 'old' traditional models of living. This is not meant literally in almost all cases but is a symbolic struggle, a call to awakening rather than a crusade.

Exploring sentiments that are meant to be empowering but using confrontational imagery or themes can mean they are interpreted literally and associated with the very topics they decry such as fascism (another organised oppression). To be best of our knowledge this is not the case and they are working at a symbolic level, using techniques to shock people in the same way punk did (which this is in part an enduring continuation). In its own way it's a continuation of the punks using swastikas but usually in a more subtle (and hence easy to confuse) way. We do though we feel that any exploration of a folk 'purity' must be done with caution if at all as it leads towards confused areas that became associated the far-right and nationalism, topics we repudiate at the site (and the musicians themselves are not affiliated with).

We therefore advise people exploring this area of music to set it in the context described above and not to take it as a literal expression of political intent. Indeed these artists often abhor politics themselves and if they have in their impetuous youth been drawn towards extremities of politics and expression, as they mature and leave these flirtations behind they enrich their creativity with a more intelligent, insightful creative debate about the position of modern society.

In terms of the UK, the concept of 'apocalyptic folk' is a broadly historical one, there was never a scene as such, just artists working together who has since developed further. They gradually have each evolved a more personalised expression, often centred around spiritual growth. For example Current 93 themselves quickly left behind these qualities and moved towards personalised, stark folk ballad confessional style that evolved the form in an individual way gradually seeming to grow beyond their early explorations. We particularly look forward to their future output with the focus on a more positive approach.

In mainland Europe an entirely separate area of folk related music emerged which was explicitly more dark by intent, using Norse paganism and seeking a direct link beyond simpler society to ancient, even savage models. This is often called 'folk noir' or even 'black folk' (especially as many of the musicians were previously involved in the black metal area of music). Here it does seem that the artists 'mean it' and their lyrics are all the more disturbing. This is music we feel particularly uncomfortable with and generally do not cover at the site.

The eighties also saw other artists emerge who would prove helpful in bringing forward a climate that would slowly become more receptive to folk music and the psychedelic once again. In the UK Dead Can Dance combined medieval music with elements of folk and soundscapes to help give credibility to a more acoustic, alternative sound. In particular on tracks like 'Black Sun' they were creating a new style of doom filled acoustic music with direct parallels to folk music. Lisa Goddard would go on to solo success, notably on the Gladiator film soundtrack and Brendan Perry works in production and also solo.

Also important then and now was musician Martyn Bates formerly of experimental independent pop band Eyeless In Gaza. From the late 1980s onwards he has combined lonesome avant-folk music with cold isloationist ambience across a wide series of albums. A mid-period album of his that brings together many qualities of his work is ‘Glistening Praise’.

Things had also started to slowly turn in the mid-1980s as some artists sought a different path to the spandex-rock of the time. With acoustic rockers The Waterboys recording a folk oriented album in Fishermen’s Blues and in particular a mystical last track that was a stunning version of W.B. Yeats’ ‘The Stolen Child’. Suicidal Flowers combined sixties garage pop and folk music ballads and other artists emerged later from the festival circuit combining progressive rock, folk touches and celtic or pagan stylings elements such as White Willow and Morrigan developed a new pagan influenced folk-rock music.

In Japan the psychedelic folk band Ghost were starting their long journey into mind melting rock and lysergic folk captured brilliantly on the Pink Floyd-folk combination of 'Snuffbox Immanence' . This Mortal Coil also did a quite sublime version of Tim Buckley’s ‘Song To The Siren’ with Liz Fraser of Cocteau Twins singing that created a new highly atmospheric approach to folk.

Folk music was still a long way from the mainstream but these first formative developments and a revival of interest in artists such as Nick Drake would sow the seeds for the growth to follow.

Note: for much more of this article (four more parts!) please see the Color Wheel blog at

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