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8 May 2010

Review: An English Arcanum (Telling the Bees)

Telling the Bees
An English Arcanum
Black Thrustle, 2009

Imagine being seduced into the world of Merrie England, as John Michell would say: a quasi-mythical realm of music, craft, magic, the whole rustic tapestry of rural life. A world where animals are wiser than humans, and hedgerows bristle with mystery.

No, that isn’t quite the world of Telling the Bees – they’re far too wise to naively devolve into such idealism – but it certainly echoes through every note of their new album, An English Arcanum, and if ever the folk mythology of Merrie England were attested by any kind of evidence, this album would be it.

Steeped in the mysteries of root and branch, lark and hare, something truly ancient has been embodied in this record. It is a powerful statement of the spirit of England freed from the pettiness of politicisation (and yet in moments powerfully political for all of that). Indeed, this album achieves that all-too-rare accomplishment: a celebration of a European genius loci that is blessedly free of chauvinism or self-righteousness.

As with their first album, Telling the Bees’ central instrumentation consists of vocals, mandolin, bass, cello, violin, and pipes. This time around they’ve deployed more of their impressive multi-instrumentality, however, and the exquisitely subtle electric guitar, expanded percussion, and sweet concertina (among others) are welcome additions.

The arrangements on this record are incredibly intricate, yet always tasteful. They paint a landscape into which one could blissfully wander for endless seasons. The release is entirely self-produced, and as such Telling the Bees reveal themselves as masters of the modern as well as masters of the traditional.

If the compositions are a little more accessible this time around, they are also more musically intriguing: the deployment of layered counter-melodies and cheeky rhythms that made Telling the Bee’s first release, Untie the Wind, such a treat are further explored here.

Notably, lead vocalist Andy Letcher’s singing has acquired a depth, complexity, and power that was only hinted at in the previous album. His voice evokes a profound wisdom, passion, and pathos: it betrays the group-soul of a band possessed with all-too-rare magic.

Although it is brutally difficult to single out particular tracks on this unspeakably beautiful record, “Blackbird (A Crumb for a Song)” does merit a special mention: the aching affective tapestry, combined with evocative storytelling (and an ironic sting in the tail) are utterly captivating.

I cannot help but feel that this is the music that the old Bardic colleges had in mind for their novices to produce at the culmination of their arduous training regimes. It is a profound privilege to listen to this music: An English Arcanum is easily one of the best (and quite possibly the best) releases of 2009.

This review was originally featured on Heathen Harvest webzine, where  you can also find an interview with Telling the Bees conducted by H. A. Laguz.

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