by Jon Hunt
I am, right this minute, inventing a new musical genre.
I am calling it “Wicker Man Rock.” It’s named after the classic Robin Hardy horror film “The Wicker Man.” And no, for clarification: not the version with Nicholas Cage where he punches a girl in a bear suit and then screams about bees. I’m talking about the utterly chilling original from 1973, starring Britt Ekland and Christopher Lee, about a missing girl and pagan fol-de-rol on a tiny British island. If you haven’t seen it, go watch it right this minute.
Back? Okay, so what you probably noticed more than anything during the film was the soundtrack. Wasn’t what you expected at all, was it? No typical horror-film atmospherics here. It was instead quite lovely, hypnotic British folk music (by a group called Magnet, if you were wondering). And when combined with the dance-round-the-maypole-and-murder vibe of the film itself, it transforms from ordinary, earnest Britfolk into something damn spooky — a sort of “harvest pagan” mystique that makes for enormously compelling, chills-up-the-spine listening.
“Wicker Man Rock” – since I invented it, I get to make the rules! – is anything that fits within that vibe. Influenced by British Isles folk on some level, but with that kind of haunted pagan-sacrifice-to-the-olde-gods mysticism bolstering it. Doesn’t have to be intentional — but it has to elevate beyond plain ol’ folk music into something slightly unsettling. Fleet Foxes and Bon Iver aren’t Wicker Man Rock, for example (lovely, but not the least bit unsettling), but stuff like Espers and Vashti Bunyan and even Devendra Banhart kind of is. Makes sense?
Which brings us to Territories by Lovely Dark, which is so a work of Wicker Man Rock. I’m not sure they were even shooting for that vibe – though the girl in the fox mask on the front cover standing in fallen autumn leaves is a tip-off they were at least aware of it on some level – but it lands squarely there. And believe me, I mean it not the least bit pejoratively – this is a deeply unsettling, tremendously lovely album, full of golden harvest sunsets and dark rituals and pounding pagan beats. It’s a spooky, haunted album, one of the most richly drawn local records I’ve heard in years.
If I had to pick apart the reasons why this record falls into my new genre, I suppose it boils down to a couple of things: the British Isles influence (Fairport Convention? Or is that just my imagination based on a cursory resemblance between singer Sonia Even and Sandy Denny?) and a whole mess of ominous vibe. Listen to “Cold Wind” to see what I mean – you can hear the folkisms in there, but the pagan throb of the drums, the skittering lead guitar lines and the astonishing 3-part harmony are what makes it damn spooky. Repeat across whole of record.
If it was just about vibe, though, it might be an eerie little record that you’d listen to once or twice in about September or October of every year to help the crops grow. But Territories has remarkable songwriting, too. My favorite song is the driving, powerful “Phoenix” which also, not coincidentally, sports the best/catchiest chorus hook on the album and should (if there were any justice in the world) be a massive hit. But there’s great stuff all across the thing — listen to the creepy “Three-Legged Crow,” which has some of Sonia’s best singing, or the almost proggy “Carnivore,” which veers into mid-90s mathrock territory, weirdly, with its twisty-turny little chorus.
I call it richly drawn, by the way, because of the lushness of the arrangements. I love that there are six people in the band — that’s tough to pull off unless you consider very carefully what everybody’s doing at any given time, otherwise you end up with everybody playing in unison. Nowhere does this happen – the guitars weave and dodge amongst themselves wildly, and the percussion is always flat-out weird and pulsating (and, oddly, electronic – it never sounds it).
No purist work this, by the way: it is most certainly a rock record though touched all across it by folk tradition. I hear the National in the skittering, complex beats, a bit of the aforementioned Fleet Foxes in the phenomenal multipart harmonies, a touch of Arcade Fire in the chiming echo-chamber guitars. This is definitely what you’d call “indie rock” or “indie folk,” I suppose, but I hear something in there – a kind of pagan man-coming-to-grips-with-nature thing – that pushes it into the territory of something seriously cool.
If I had one tiny complaint – and believe me, it’s tiny, this is a great record full stop – it is this: Lovely Dark seem to take themselves very, very seriously. Which they should – they’re making terrific music – but I worry that the sort of very intense, earnest vibe lacks a certain warm, delirious something that would sustain them across a couple albums. Even “The Wicker Man” was darkly funny and incredibly sexy in places, whereas this thing has a monkish quality that might come across as a bit po-faced. No matter – Territories is a gorgeous, spooky little record, perfect for those evenings when harvest-based human sacrifice is in the offing. Give it a go.