Crows' Bones - Martin Green

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Martin Green
Crows' Bones
Reveal Records (

Martin Green, the renowned accordionist for the band Lau, is not afraid of experimenting with the folk idiom. Green's 2009 project, The Martin Green Machine, found the musician with a commission from the Celtic Connections 'New Voices' series. With Crows' Bones, Green was commissioned yet again – this time from the adventurous Opera North, for an evening of traditional and contemporary ghost songs.

The Crows' Bones soundtrack is really a collaboration, with Martin Green as headmaster. Musicians Becky Unthank (vocals, music boxes), Inge Thomson (vocals, toys, noises, log), and Niklas Roswall (nyckelharpa) are all equally prominent, and there are contributions of guitar (Adrian Utley), bass drum (Andy Sutor), and Tuvan mouth harp. As befitting a program about ghosts, the overall aesthetic is eerie, stark, and shadowy. Producer Calum Malcolm has provided pristine sound that allows all kinds of effective audio tricks to creak from the floorboards – for instance, the voices of Unthank and Thomson are sometimes run through mic'd tin cans, which are then wired to gramophones, providing vocals that sound like lost, recorded transmissions: ghostly soundwaves in themselves.

Crows' Bones is dark, dark, dark: the emphasis of the show is to unsettle, turning the everyday experiential world upside down into phantasmagoria. The opening track, "Mess of Crows," comes in on Green's accordion chords, sounding for all the world like a gothic organ. As Thomson begins the tale of two lovers ("far from city lights") who wish to meet, we hear that "it was not meant to be": these are doomed lovers. Unthank's vocals – duskier than Thomson's – make for a great counterpoint as piano sounds ominously, and the track builds like a rising storm, the women's voices distorted in chanting until one hears "with teeth and claws so sharp and keen"… The listener definitely gets the sense that this "was not meant to be," at all.

"Mess of Crows"

The band pulls out all kinds of grimly fiendish moments. On "I Saw The Dead," a modern ghost song from the band Villagers, what sounds like a toy piano being plunked also reminded me of John Carpenter's theme to his movie Halloween (and that is high praise, as Carpenter's scores are terrifying). "I Saw The Dead" is a bit like being stuck in a Victorian attic with Unthank and Thomson; one fully expects that behind the door (nooooooooo, don't open it!) and an old trunk strewn with moldy dolls, there are the dead, waltzing to a creepy, carnival-esque tune. Children's music boxes round out the overall atmosphere.

(Click to listen or open the video)

For traditional material, the Crows' Bones album offers two well-known songs, the "Lyke Wake Dirge" and "Three Ravens." The band re-makes these old chestnuts over in startling fashion, so you feel as if you are hearing these songs afresh. "Lyke Wake Dirge" gathers in intensity: the band sets up an environment that sounds like one is lost in a relentless storm of sleet. Betsy Unthank's vocals emerge from the heart of the sheets of sound, a quiet island in the downpour. The lengthy version of "Three Ravens" ups the terror quotient, alternating between pounding intensity and the joined voices of Thomson and Unthank.

"Lyke Wake Dirge"

"Three Ravens"

Roswell's keyed nyckelharpa then takes us across the bridge and into a Swedish bridal march paired with the song poem "Griesly Bride," which is underpinned with a stamping beat that dissolves into dread dissonance. Roswell's nyckelharpa plays hide-and-seek with the sounds of sharp intakes of breath; it's haunting.

Running like a spine through the production are three improvisations: "Some Living," "Some Neither," and "Some Dead." Each is a minimal, ethereal, often droning piece, with unique instrumentation conjuring together this world and the netherworld. "Some Living" features a log strung with a cello string that is sawed and plucked; "we…should…be…below" intone the women, and this is goose bump territory. On the closing "Some Dead," Tuvan mouth harps sound out like tolling bells from the spirit world.

"Some Living"

"Some Dead"

Overall, Crows' Bones is a stunning folk-gothic assemblage that truly gets under one's skin. The paradox of ghost songs is that they speak to the unseen; but, to be experienced such songs are given voice by the living. The haunting horrors are there in memory, and also right now, and this musical grimoire will spook you to the core. - Lee Blackstone

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