Anybody browsing round Bandcamp, that online repository for so much that is hale and hearty in the world of independent music, could do a lot worse right now than hop over to the United Bible Studies page. Where they will find… not, as the name would seem to imply, some ernest discussion of the Good Book, but some of the most intriguing, challenging and defiantly left field ambient psych folk noise (their keywords, not mine) currently catching the ear.
Rosary Bleeds is… what, their nineteenth album? Something like that. There’s been a lot of them, anyway, released since founder David Colohan and James Rider first set up tent in Dublin in 2001, and proceeded to lure in a small army of fellow players, some passing through for just a song or two, others locking in for the long haul. Right now, Richard Moult, Áine O’Dwyer (whose Music for Church Cleaners solo album, by the way, should also be sought out) and Michael Tanne are all united in their studies, while Goldmine readers will also recognize the name of Alison O’Donnell, profiled here a couple of months back.
Reference points. Past mentions of UBS have included the Incredible String Band, Broadcast, Current 93 and Sweeney’s Men, all of whom inhabit the same stygian fringes of the acid folk revolution. But there are moments of even darker dissonance on display as well, a place where you begin to understand how gig-goers must have felt in 1967, when they went to see Pink Floyd play their hits, and wound up watching AMM go through their paces first. In other words, no matter what one UBS album might lead you to expect, another is going to take your hand and lead you some place entirely.
That said, Rosary Bleeds is an album that you could probably play to any ears you like, and they’d find something they’d want to take home with them. Much of that is surely down to O’Donnell, co-writer with Colohan of all but one song, and whose vocals hang over the soundscapes even when she’s not singing.
Possessed of an ageless voice that naturally combines sweet allure with firelit ritual, wrapped around the spectral echo harmonies of “Glendalough Carved In An Age Of Ice,” or warm amid the eerie rhythms of “The Devil’s Trumpet Is A Witch’s Weed,” O’Donnell conjures a sense of … not Pagan mystery, because some people will immediately take such a description the wrong way, and they’ll all be off playing their Zeppelin albums backwards before we can get another sensible word out of them.
But you know when you’re alone in a dark wood at midnight, and you hear things rustle and you don’t think they’re animals, and you see lights flicker and you know they’re not fireflies? That’s what Rosary Bleeds sounds like, mist over ancient mounds, trees old as time itself and, again, a lot of that is O’Donnell’s doing.
“Brew The Sequence,” a sixties TV theme wrapped around an avant garde blues; “Apartment 6,” which sounds like something Pye Corner Audio might have contributed to a creepy, cautionary fairy tale; “The Reign of the White Plague,” with its introductory distortion best making sense if you’re chewing silver foil at the time – the midway point through Rosary Bleeds also serves up the pulsating heart of the album. You’re in the woods now, the rustling and flickers are all around you. And now is when they reveal themselves.
Where to start with the UBS catalog? The Jonah, the first of their albums to feature O’Donnell, is beautiful and brittle, and includes her spellbinding rendering of “The Lowlands of Holland”; personally, I point everyone towards that. But earlier albums, released on the Deserted Village label, likewise veer wildly between the caustic and the cloudlike, and most emotions in between.
“Every Time We Find A Dead Viking,” from 2003’s Stations of the Sun, Transits of the Moon, is seventeen minutes of distant quiet, lilting snatches of barely-heard melody until suddenly… it isn’t, and you realize that maybe the Viking wasn’t so dead after all. “Tributaries of the Styx Under Dublin,” from The Shore That Fears The Sea, looks towards the proggy influences that may or may not have shaped sundry band members in the past, but wouldn’t have been out of place on a mid 70s King Crimson album. And “The Roving Ploughboy,” from The Kitchen Session, is as sweet and traditional as you could wish.
In the light of all that has fallen before it, then, Rosary Bleeds could be termed UBS’s most overall cohesive album, one that eyes the furthest extremes to which they’ve been prone, and chooses not to stray so far itself. Against that, however, you can balance the sense that it’s not an album to play late at night, on your own, if you’re at all of a nervous disposition… but if you enjoy making mix tapes around the soundtrack to The Wicker Man, and you have the Ghost Box catalog on shuffle on your iPod, United Bible Studies in general, and Rosary Bleeds in particular, are casting spells you really need to fall under.
There’s just one caveat. Rosary Bleeds is still looking for a label, which is why you can only play it off the Bandcamp site right now, when what you really want is to bring it home, nurture it, cherish it, and see what it grows into. Because we’re all going to be surprised by that.