Words by Grey Malkin
Burd Ellen, the duo of Gayle Brogan and Debbie Armour, return bearing Yule tidings with their sophomore effort ‘Says The Never Beyond’, a spellbinding collection of wintry folksong that ‘occupies the liminal space between sacred and secular, connecting to the deep seasonal traditions of Britain and Ireland’. Similar to the specially curated set that the duo performed at last year’s Folk Horror Revival ‘Winter Ghosts’ event, the album digs deep into the frozen fields of winter celebration and the curious pagan/Christian patchwork that adorns so many of this country’s Christmas carols and songs. As befits the darkest of the seasons when the membrane between this world and the next is at its thinnest, these utterances come cloaked in haunting vocal harmonies, sparse, stripped back harmonium and ghostly electronics, with strong echoes of the spooked landscapes of Gayle Brogan’s alter ego and project Pefkin. Whilst autumn may still be amongst us, the evenings are already growing darker; it is an ideal time for ‘Says The Never Beyond’.
The album opens with ‘Please To See The King’, a traditional song of ‘Old Christmas’ that tells of renewal and rebirth symbolised by the killing of a wren, the ‘king’ of birds, on St. Stephen’s Day. Previously recorded as ‘The King’ by Steeleye Span and alternately ‘The Wren’ by Martin Carthy and Dave Swarbrick, Burd Ellen’s take is initially a snowstorm of birdsong, swooping violin, icy electronics and reverbed chorales, before settling into warm layers of harmonised vocals. Their interpretation of the carol is nothing short of transcendent in its sheer beauty and deceptive simplicity. Timeless and haunting (this album heaves with the ghosts of Christmas’s past), this is then followed by the equally spectral ‘Coventry Carol’, where delicate soundscapes, awash with strings and analogue electronica, sensitively frames both Armour and Brogan’s voices. A melancholy 16th century carol that depicts the slaughter of the innocents by Herod and the subsequent lullabies sung by their grief ridden mothers, Burd Ellen invoke a deep and stately sense of sorrow and loss; again captured in a form that is breath taking and harbouring real emotional impact. Next, ‘Wexford Carol’ is an unaccompanied and plaintive version of the Irish nativity song, all the more affecting and gently powerful for its minimal approach. Armour has the kind of presence in her voice that when she starts to sing, you stop everything you are doing to listen, and listen intently.
Returning to the theme of birds and traditional folklore once more with ‘The Cutty Wren’ (sometimes heard in its variant as ‘The Hunting of the Wren’ and again discussing the ‘killing of the king’ to herald the coming of spring), this piece finds Burd Ellen’s voices adorned with swathes of distorted guitar and frozen harp notes that descend like falling flakes of snow. Growing ever more elaborate and intensely expressive, the song culminates in a genuine ‘raised hairs on the back of the neck’ moment. ‘Hela’r Dryw Bach’ starts with a swarm of violin and rising, buzzing drones, eliciting an ominous and ritualistic air that befits the more pagan elements and origins of some of these festive carols (the previous ‘Cutty Wren’ for example was discussed in Frazier’s ‘The Golden Bough’ and this is a Welsh variant of the same song). Electronic choirs create a winter’s tapestry that chills to the bone, as the interweaving lines of Celtic verse become both hypnotic and utterly arresting. ‘Corpus Christi Carol’, perhaps best known by the Benjamin Britten arrangement or its memorable take by the late Jeff Buckley, is a stark but lovely harmonium and violin adorned piece that has a sense of magic and ritual imbued in its shimmering sombreness; befitting for a psalm that supposedly included reference to the legend of the Grail and the Fisher King, and which dates from the 1500s. Haunted piano notes enter, echoing, providing a coda that is joined by spare and selective guitar, before fading into a late afternoon’s winter darkness. ‘Sans Day Carol’, by turn, is an uplifting, stirring and beautifully performed vocal version of the Cornish take on ‘The Holly And The Ivy’. We have then reached the album finale; ‘Taledh Chriosda’ enters on a sudden and immense howling rasp of electronics, a synthesised fanfare that swirls and floats around this staple of Gaelic midnight mass. A heart stopping, deeply affecting piece of work that builds momentum with both handclaps and strings, Burd Ellen know exactly when to layer and add texture so that it adds emotional heft and power to their work, as evidenced by the crescendo of guitar and violin that commences the song here.
A work of startling beauty, hugely evocative and transportive, this is an album that should not just be for Christmas or Yule, at the darkening of the days. It is a piece that carries tradition, modernity and bold experimentation with ease and sounds at once ancient and also like nothing else you may have heard before. As autumn settles in, it is more than time to sit with ‘Says The Never Beyond’. A salve for any season.
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