Under the moniker Precious Bane, Nicole, or N.D.K.G., one half of black metal duo Ragana, has put out what could be the most intimately personal album of the year in the form of In Night’s Meadow. It’s a masterpiece of dark folk that examines grief and loss through a uniquely queer lens, made all the more potent for being a debut.
From the opening bars, this is not an easy album on the listener. Its bleak melodies and mournful atmosphere do not make for a fun time. But it is beautiful in its sorrow. One facet of this is the emotional numbness of Nicole’s vocal performance. To my mind, her singing evokes a mourner flatly singing unfamiliar hymns in church at a funeral. This is not the pure, crystalline voice of a choral soprano, or the full-bodied voice of a folk-singer entertaining a crowd. This is the voice of someone who may not even want to be singing, but through singing is putting their pain out into the world in the hopes that someone else might hear, take solace in it, and do the same for others. And let me be clear: this is a good thing. It works for this music. No other vocal style would work so well to truly plumb the depths of emotion on display here. It pushes the listener to reckon with their darker thoughts and feelings in a way that no other style could.
Long-term fans of Ragana will already be aware of Nicole’s talents, but it’s worth noting that this is their debut album as Precious Bane. The lyrical poetry alone is excellent, but it is surrounded by haunting music. Nicole is the sole instrumentalist, composing the melodies on a mix of guitar and synths, soaking them in reverb to give the music an ethereal, dream-like quality. It draws listeners into Nicole’s mind to feel the emotions on display for themselves. Dark folk is a nebulous genre description at the best of times, but it seems to fit for In Night’s Meadow. The vocals are clean, and the music is largely free of distortion, barring occasional lo-fi moments used for emphasis such as on ‘Ashes Pt 2.’ There is a distinct air of listening round a campfire at the edge of the woods as the sun sets. But it is much darker than that image might suggest. This is grief manifested in music. This is perhaps the kind of folk music you might get if the campfire was a funeral pyre.
To contextualise In Night’s Meadow, the closest comparisons to be drawn are to artists like Emma Ruth Rundle or Darkher. It would be an excellent experience to see Nicole perform these songs as the opener to a Ragana live show. But there is no black metal grandeur, no Darkher theatricality here. It’s a quiet, intimate, heartbreaking album. What Precious Bane presents is a pared-back expression of love and loss, but also renewal. Yes, for all the gloom the music evokes, there is still a sense of hope. All loss hurts us. No sorrow is painless. But the solitary magpie soon flies away. The album cover itself is a visualisation of this: the sun peeks out between heavy gray clouds and dark trees, and whether it is sunrise or sunset, it conveys a sense of renewal.
To look into all of this more closely, we must dive into the lyrics. Sadly, to examine all of the excellent poetry on display would eat up too much of this review. But take, for example, the first lines of ‘Ashes,’ which read: “on the first day I said her name/flowers fell from her body/flowers fell from my body/and there was no shame/and the joy burned like pain.” This simple imagery could easily be read as a queer inversion of the scales falling from the eyes of Paul on the road to Damascus. Removing religion from the equation, the flowers fall from the lovers’ bodies not only to reveal what is underneath but to do so without shame. There is only joy in this moment. It’s both a beautiful depiction of how falling in love feels, but more importantly it highlights a uniquely queer experience of falling in love. By revealing one’s true self, there need be no more shame about it. A friend of mine once covered ink stains on a skirt with embroidered patterns. In the same way, in places where LGBTQ+ rights are under attack, queer people hide their queerness under something more socially palatable: shame hidden beneath flowers. Although there is now no shame for the lovers here when the flowers fall away, why does their joy burn like pain? When you have lived a life of repression and oppression, to be able to express your love for another freely can feel so monumental, so overwhelming, that it hurts: “the joy burned like pain.” And yet, in Nicole’s distinctive delivery, there is almost no joy to be found, making these the words of someone mourning their departed loved one. The joy is not currently burning – it burned, past tense.
Elsewhere, the lyrics touch on occult interests like Tarot symbolism in ‘The Tower;’ on both renewal and the return of what is lost in ‘Wind Spell (Returning);’ and on ‘Shining,’ the fact that darkness has to exist in order to see the light. “I will make my life an offering to this/a hand cupping water, carrying poison and light.” There is again not enough room in this review to discuss every facet of the poetry Nicole has written in these lyrics, but they are well worth reading.
As beautiful as it is bleak, In Night’s Meadow may well be the most heartbreaking release of this year. It’s a soft, beautiful ode to love and loss, and an incredible debut.
In Night’s Meadow is out now, self-released, and available to purchase here.
Words: Nick Dunn