Saturday 18 March 2023


The Brunswick, Hove
Fri 10th March

I came across Burd Ellen the same way I did Fern Maddie, from the Guardian’s ten best folk album list of last year. But the release than won that accolade, ’A Tarot Of the Green Wood’, ploughs quite a different furrow. It’s all traditional numbers, but not as we know them…

They announce they’ll be doing "one of those long, continuous sets like you read about in that ’Wire' magazine”. But it’s separate tracks run together, like a mixtape without gaps. Which is, I suspect, to defamiliarise the familiar folk gig, with all the to-audience explaining that this next song is from South Shropshire, not North Shropshire as was once thought.

What’s more, individual tracks can run so this just plays up that continuous sense they have already. To sound like that ’Wire’ magazine a moment, duration is made into a compositional tool, as much as it is in Minimalist music. It’s a set which takes time to steep but them becomes flavoursome.

The duo play behind a table laden with folk instruments and knob-twiddling gizmos. Even the glass of water gets put to a musical purpose. But if that has you ready to say ‘folktronicia’, that’s a term which suggests creative collisions. Whereas Burd Ellen don’t seem to make any such distinctions in the first place. For most of the gig, you wouldn’t know who was playing what without looking… in fact, it wasn’t always easy while looking. ‘Drone folk’ probably fits them better, taking the natural drone qualities of folk instruments and amplifying them.

In fact, rather than cleverly adding stuff, they tend to work at their best while most stripped down. If that table was laden, the less they pick up from it the better they work. The encore (which they seemed genuinely surprised to get) was down to voice, vocal loops and taps on the violin. Yep taps, not even bowed or plucked. Though I confess the one acapella number perhaps pushed a point too far, and was the one point my attention wandered.

If we have to have a sound-bite description, imagine a Lankum who are less dour and more enticingly eerie. The album, they can be keen to say, was released on Halloween. ’The Lovers’, with it’s references to a “green wood”, could describe a little girl lost in that deep dark wood, or be a siren call drawing you in.

And it warrants stuff I’ve been saying for some while now. We can’t truly reconnect with the past, but neither can we just forget it. So it will continue to haunt us, and so we should talk about how it haunts us. This is music which works like a lightning rod for phantoms.

Not sure there’s any footage of this tour, but this is both Burd and Ellen (note to self, check this is their real names before posting), performing ’The Hermit’ from Gateshead. A low-lit basement made a better setting for their sounds than a brightly lit glass-fronted gallery, but go with it…

Then, the very next day…

Union Chapel, London
Sat 11th March

If Burd Ellen are a recent discovery, Current 93 are a long-time fave at Lucid Frenzy Towers, producing one of my all-time favourite albums. If Burd Ellen are drone folk, Current 93 go in for apocalypse folk. They’ve since confessed they only coined the term as a joke, but like so many of these things the tag stuck.

A near-universal assumption has dominated recent years, that downloading has killed the integrity of the album. Current 93, however, continue to be zeitgeist-proof, and David Tibet (frontman and sole constant member) was probably busy learning more ancient Akkadian when that was announced. (Not a gag! The new album title came from some Akkadian he was perusing.)

You can pick out and play individual tracks from their releases, should you choose. But the albums have a thematic unity which turns them into part of a greater whole. And the past two times I’ve seen them they’ve played their last album through in track order, usually (as here) with the track titles projected on a screen.

Except this time, there’s a twist. Up to now each album has stood alone, a unique project with its own dedicated line-up. This time it’s very much a sequel to its predecessor, ’The Light is Leaving Us All'. (Which I saw live back in 2018.) The title, 'If A City Is Set Upon A Hill', suggests a shifting uptown of imagery from the bucolic English village imagery of last time. And themes, images and musical styles recur.

Notably, the post-album section of the gig, the part devoted to the more standard best-of, is dominated by a series of tracks from ’Light’. There was precisely one number from neither album the whole night, ’Sleep Has His House’. I guess, if you see more gold in that seam, you keep mining. And, as I suspected after last time, it all works better back in the atmosphere of the Union Chapel than the regular rock venue they decamped to last time.

Lyrically, Tibet combines the epic and eschatological with the more everyday. (“Read it in the tealeaves, read it in the stars.”) And the music does something similar, somehow combining grandeur and intimacy. Which might stem in part from the characteristically idiosyncratic line-up. Piano probably dominated, but combined with guitar, violin, wind instruments (including bagpipes) and two guys on laptops. One of which occasionally doubled on drums and, solely for ’Sleep Has His House', organ. (But this time no hurdy-gurdy. Perhaps the hurdy-gurdy players have joined in with the strike wave.)

’If A City Is Set Upon A Hill’ refers of course to urban planning coming before a fall. Which leads us to Tibet’s near-fixation with death and dissolution. It would be easy to caricature him as some blood-and-thunder street preacher screaming at us we’re all going to die, who has inexplicably drafted in a backing band. Their Marmitey reputation might well come from here, some look at them and that’s what they see. But, while they are certainly a most intense experience, to me that isn’t really right.

Granted, I’d be harder pressed to tell you what he is doing, but then I don’t think he’s making music with some specific purpose in mind. Not a fan of Damian Hurst, but when he titled a work ’The Physical Impossibility of Death In the Mind of Someone Living’, he was raising an interesting point. (The title was certainly the best part of the artwork.) And Tibet is in part straining against the certainty of that line, devoting decades of music-making to pushing back at a solid-seeming wall.

Further, death was not always seem as an outside interruption to life, but something woven into the fabric of things. And Tibet’s also trying to take us back to those folk culture days where he was a figure you might meet while out walking. A somewhat single-minded character, perhaps, but not necessarily a malevolent one. Ultimately, the intention isn’t at all nihilistic, though it may be somewhat fatalist. And the sombre beauty of their music conveys that.

They sound not at all like the Residents, the last band I saw in this venue. But there’s perhaps a similarity of attitude, of sticking to your thing whether there be head or tail winds. It’s the mark of a band where you leave a gig feeling you’ll see nothing like that until their next thing, and just what I felt here.

Ye Gods! Actual gig footage! The title track (sorta) and 'There Is No Zodiac’…

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