Review / The Witching Tale – S/T

Mistress of the strange and sublime Katharine Blake is back with a new project and album under the moniker The Witching Tale. Living up to its name, the experimental folk project’s debut album The Witching Tale is suitably bewitching. 

Blake has created the band, and its eponymous debut, with her partner, Michael J York, whose discography includes work with Coil, The Utopia Strong, and Current 93. It hews closer to Blake’s work with Mediaeval Baebes overall, but more because of its folk influences than any other reason. Her hypnotic vocals suffuse the album with a seductive quality, particularly noticeable on tracks like ‘The City In The Sea.’ 

Hypnotic and seductive are the two biggest watchwords for the album. But the third is weird. Weird in the sense of uncanny, strange, eerie. It is not an easy album to listen to – background music to be played while washing up this most certainly is not. From the opening track’s elegiac flute melodies, synth motifs, and droning sitar sound right through to the end, The Witching Tale is designed to enthrall listeners with its magic. 

And it is magic, make no mistake. Blake’s compositions evoke the feeling of “how did she do that?” that is usually reserved for illusionists. It feels, well, as if she has bewitched the listener. But how? The album’s entrancing effects arise from the layers of folk instrumentation which form a psychedelic drone sound, courtesy of York (who has credits for a total of fourteen instruments) and guest musician Charlie Cawood (whose multi-instrumental talents are relegated to just three), as well as others like Kavus Torabi. The swirling, reverberating layers of instrumentation wash over the listener, buoying aloft Blake’s voice on waves of sound. Blake’s voice is also layered on itself, exemplified notably on ‘The Web Is Broken,’ which lets it function as another layer of the soundscape, as opposed to simply soaring over the instrumental melodies. But it’s not all drone soundscapes: there are moments of playfulness in the instrumentation. ‘Spirans Amore’ is led entirely by synth trills, which readily evokes fireflies dancing in a dusky grove, or lovers giggling with each other. A suitable sound for a song whose title translates to “breathing with love.” There are even field recordings – note the seagulls and waves on ‘Where The Sea Snakes Curl’ which could easily be overlooked by an inattentive listener.

This all means it sits in a unique position, category-wise. It’s not purely folk music, it’s not purely drone, it’s something other, something beyond merely a mix of the two. In other words, it’s par for the course for Blake herself. Her most famous band, Mediaeval Baebes, released a plainsong album, Prayers of the Rosary, in 2020, and The Witching Tale presents something of an evolution of the sound from that album. Not the kind of music that might soundtrack a meeting of witches as in Macbeth, but nonetheless bewitching. Blake’s voice evokes various images: a mother singing to her child, a lover seducing another, a druid communing with nature. She demonstrates a truly impressive range of styles across the album, supported at all times by York’s compositions and the talent of the guest musicians.

And it really is talent on display. Cawood and Torabi are by no means slouches, with Cawood’s skills at playing multiple instruments well-noted – just look into his solo work for proof. But between them, the various musicians exhibit a clear chemistry that really elevates the work. Often, the kind of experimental psychedelic music being made on this album can sound a little loose, awkward, as if not everyone playing quite believes in or understands exactly what’s happening. Not so for The Witching Tale. Everyone is fully committed, everyone believes in the shared vision, and the outcome is sublime. 

All this is in service of saying that The Witching Tale is so much more than a simple folk album. The music digs itself deep into the psyche and refuses to let go, rewarding multiple repeats as the listener identifies motifs and moments they may have missed previously. It is not an easy album to listen to – it demands attention, even as it hypnotises the listener into a sort of trance in which it is easy to miss the ideas on display. But that attention is worth paying for the rewards on offer. Here’s hoping there is more to come. 

The Witching Tale is out now on Bellissima Records and can be purchased here.

Words: Nick Dunn

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