“There was a crooked man, and he walked a crooked mile,
“He found a crooked sixpence against a crooked stile;
“He bought a crooked cat which caught a crooked mouse,
“And they all lived together in a little crooked house.”
No, not a lyric, but a mood. No, not even that. A feeling. The feeling on the back of your neck that somebody isn’t quite telling you everything you need to know about the subject at hand.
In what way was the crooked man crooked? What did the crooked cat do with the crooked mouse?
And where is that crooked little house?
It’s in the Witch Wood.
The third album from one of the UK’s premier haunted-folk acts, the Hare and the Moon, has just dropped, and anybody lured in by frontman Grey Malkin’s description of “Black Sabbath and Pentangle having a drunken argument at midnight, in a graveyard,” both knows precisely what to expect… and is going to be thrilled and chilled throughout its generous sixteen song duration.
Blending traditional airs with fresh breaths, “chuck in some tales of talking ravens, murder, ghosts and the occasional mandolin”… the Hare’s penchant for the morbid has always been balanced by a sharp eye for the mysterious, but this time there's an even eerier beauty that firmly plants Witch Wood in the forests of your dreams.
“The Bard of Eve” is a new interpretation of the traditional “Little Cuckoo” that enhances even Fynnon’s spectral reiteration of the same song (“Cwcw Fach”), while other familiar themes and melodies will be drawn from a drop dead gorgeous version of the Fairport Liege and Lief staple “Reynardine”; “The Wife of Usher’s Well” (if you only know Steeleye’s version, you have to hear this); a “Cruel Mother” that might have waltzed out of a Hammer movie.
Quite possibly the best of them all, however, is a take on one of the least-worn pathways through the Child ballads, “The Great Silkie Of Sule Skerry.” Yes, there have been earlier versions of Child 113, from as far afield as Maddy Prior and Barbara Dickson. But, cast raw and unaccompanied and aching with foreboding, this is the one that you’ll hear on storm as it blows across the Orkneys.
Well chosen samples include the blood-curdling intro to “Come Unto The Corn,” lifted from that most fabled of all early 70s horror movies, The Blood on Satan’s Claw; guests include harpist Aine O' Dwyer, flautist Amanda Votta, violinist Thomas Roberts, God's Little Eskimo (spellbinding on the aforementioned “Usher’s Well”), Tony Wakeford (ditto on the fiddle-wracked “Cruel Henry”) and more.
But to dwell on individual songs and performances is to detract from Witch Wood’s most spectacular achievement, which is to become in itself a dark forest, one in which something… a mood, a moment, a movement… lurks behind every tree; where every chord sheds a shadow, every breath masks a gasp.
From beginning to end, it’s an album that you won’t want to listen to after dark, but you know you’ll do it anyway. It’s an album that demands candlelight, wind and rain. An album that reminds us what a lot of folk music was in the first place and why it has survived so vibrantly.
All three of the Hare’s albums to date are essential listening. But Witch Wood should also be compulsory…
Hear the Hare and the Moon here.
Buy a limited edition 2CD pre-release of Witch Woodhere.