Such a challenging album is Love's Spring by Two Wings, and yet how very rewarding.
It's enough to prompt the staunchest pragmatist to Confucius/Yoda pronouncements. Drivel on the nature of that which is hard-won, versus the hollow victory of instant gratification.
An album which sounds at times as if its songs have been mined from the collective subconscious of barely-remembered folk myth; at others more like air escaping from the stretched neck of a balloon. At a line-dancing session. A lead vocal that caterwauls eerily manipulative, cajoling, sugarsweet, Gaia-Wicca, Dolly Parton, jaded goodtime girl at one moment; avenging Kali, dingos-ate-my-baby tempestuous the next.
a simpler kind of otherness
Challenging though it is, Love's Spring is not obtuse or extreme. This is not Diamanda Galas screaming that she is the antichrist or Amon Tobin twisting found sounds into unrecognisable and barely musical sonic waveforms. Instead it is a simpler kind of otherness, the slow transition in the listener from incredulity to acceptance that forms the challenge.
Hanna Tuulikki's voice is an affront on first listen. An established singer in the Glasgow folk scene, there will be those who come to the album with foreknowldege of her vocal style. Those fortunate ones can cut straight to the awe that takes the rest of us at least five listens to start feeling.
Because that vocal sounds masively contrived and self-indulgent on first acquaintance. Like Shirley Temple re-programmed, Clockwork Orange-style, to re-create Kate Bush's Top of The Pops performance of 'Wuthering Heights' whilst Tammy Wynette and Stevie Nicks share helium shots in the green room. It's odd, and before the ear attunes and it becomes eery, it sounds like a bad joke.
Nothing on the album is instant enough to survive trial by 90-second preview
Sticking with the album, listening and listening again, is essential. And thus the inevitable cod-philosophy. Nothing on the album is instant enough to survive trial by 90-second preview. It's a grower – and those belong to a lost era.
Silky-smooth segue: many of the songs on Love's Spring also sound as if they hail from another era. When the band is not indulging in their unseemly habit of affecting country and western cliches, their material echoes with melodies and phrases which are so deeply folkish that the Napoleonic War fife/flute motif on 'Love's Spring' sounds abrubtly modern in the midst of a musical mood that owes more to blood sacrifices at midwinter and effigies burnt at harvest.
That timelessness is why Love's Spring sounds as if it is already old, already a staple in the folk-rock catalogue along with Crosby, Stills and Nash or Harvest. And why it will sound undated in twenty years' time. Ben Reynolds and Hanna Tuulikki harmonising each other on 'Feet' and 'Altars and Thrones' are the equal of Simon and Garfunkel's millennia-spanning best, and becomes even more impressive when they are joined by the clean tones of Lucy Duncombe.
'…let your eyes fill the night with their tears,
and don't make war with the sadness which flows through the years,
For this love goes on coursing through the earth's beating heart,
And tonight, you are here in my arms'
The two female vocals don't even harmonise, so much as buttress the lines. Nor do they perform crowd-pleasing little descants. Rather, it is a counterpoint in vocal style, not pitch, that creates moments of breathtaking beauty amongst the unsettling high-priestess twists in Tuulikki's delivery.
a counterpoint in vocal style, not pitch, that creates moments of breathtaking beauty
Pick your archetypes to fit the roles offered, cull them from the Tarot, from the murals of Catal-Huyuk or the Madonna-Whore complex if you must insist on being dull, but accept that the cultural vertigo induced by Love's Spring is as much to do with an inexpressable invocation of symbolic, mythic roles as it is to do with a startling lead vocal.
The influence of Reynolds' and Tuulikki's background in folk is recurrent on the album. Simplicity of accompaniment, quality of performance, depth of lyrics and deftness of arrangement are absolutely crucial in a genre where any lack thereof is exposed instantly. A dulcimer and a mic offer no hiding place.
And whilst it is arguable that country and western is as much a part of the folk music tradition as men in brogues singing with their hand cupping one ear, the forays into the style on Love's Spring are the album's lowest points.
Faux-country is subect to a similar observation to Larry Flint's take on soft porn – people who like porn hate it, and people who don't like porn hate it. There is no acceptable half-way. On 'Valley', Tuulikki is unconvincing, and lading slide-guitar (not even pedal-steel, by the sound of it) and ol' boy bass rhythms onto the track is unseemly in a pair of musicians otherwise so capable and lucid.
On their own ground though, Two Wings are grandiose and confident. Closing song 'Forbidden Sublime' rolls through more than eight minutes of languid rock epic, bringing blues guitar, brass section and splashy percussion into direct competition with Tuulikki's vocal and managing to balance it all. Quite a feat.
So, decision time. Because clicking on the Soundcloud links and YouTube videos isn't going to be any use to you whatsoever. Musicians, bless them, conjure a little world into which we step when they play, but it is their world, and their ambience to control. Expecting that world to apparate via a pair of nasty little PC speakers at your workplace cubicle is too much to ask. A few hours, a couple of candles and a willing, open mind.
Are you afraid to commit?
Out April 30th on Tin Angel Records.