Reviewed by Dr Jim Waterman
Old Corpse Road are a band I’ve been much closer to over the last five and a half years than just about any other – during which time I’ve been to the far corners of the United Kingdom (and Ireland) tracking down the locations of the myths and legends they write their lyrics about, sometimes with one or more band members in tow. My reward for the efforts I’ve made travelling with my camera to make the Tales Along The Old Corpse Road series has been some inside information that most would never have had access to – so, to say this has been a long-awaited album is no understatement. For instance, I have known the album title since February 2014, and the lyrics of The Whispers Of Long Meg Through The Solstice for three whole years now…
For those who have been keeping tabs on Old Corpse Road playing live, both the opening introduction, Opening The Circle, and Long Meg itself should be familiar – they’ve been playing these two for over two years now. These, and Herne Of Windsor Forest that was introduced to the live set in early 2015, are the tracks that most closely resemble what the band were making on ‘Tis Witching Hour… so there are no undue shocks to the system. You could say Long Meg is the “hit single” of the album, it being the only one of the five main tracks not to break the ten-minute barrier, but at a shade under nine minutes it’s still not exactly grindcore – and lyrically, it’s a mixture of philosophical lecture, Christmas festivities (in May?) and elementary geology. Herne instead delves into celebrated English literature – containing a spoken intro from The Wanderer quoting directly from Shakespeare, who first dug up the 14th Century story of Herne The Hunter, only to have the Victorians embellish it 250 years later. Listen out for a subtle nod to The Cauld Lad Of Hylton from the previous album in the introduction, the part that’s morphed into an obvious t-shirt slogan, and the final section that sounds the way a mist-shrouded Windsor Forest looks first thing in the morning. Both these tracks are liberally drenched in The Watcher‘s haunting keyboard sounds – with heavy use of the church organ that proves that this grandest of instruments (even in synthesised form) can blend seamlessly with Black Metal to provide some stunning results.
The masterpieces are to be found in the next part of the album: Pendle – Daughters Of The Black Moon and The Great Thunderstorm. Both are over eleven minutes, both see Old Corpse Road throwing everything they’ve got into the mix. Pendle is a track of two halves; the first is where most of the action is, telling the tale of the 17th Century Lancashire witches in a style that is strongly reminiscent of the much-missed home-grown Epic Metal pioneers (and one-time Cacophonous Records stablemates) Bal-Sagoth – particularly in The Wanderer‘s narration that evokes the dramatic style that Byron Roberts was so fond of, the guitar lines behind it and, yet again, all those keyboards. Midway through it switches to a chanted exorcism, something of a callback to The Witch Of Wookey Hole, only this time it’s allowed to take up the entire remainder of the track – over six minutes, gradually, little by little, the volume builds, the tempo rises, to its conclusion… you know, I thought only Moonsorrow were allowed to do that and get away with it. A four-minute instrumental interlude, Sorrow Through Pendle Woods, is a lament for the lost lives of the witches who were terminated by the religious idiocy of days long past, and reprises the Bal-Sagoth-esque tune from about two minutes into Daughters Of The Black Moon. So, following this, it might come as a surprise that The Great Thunderstorm could almost be described as bouncy and upbeat in a way that The Crier Of Claiffe was from the previous album, as it details the story of a Devon miner of severely loose morals who was dragged off to Hell when he fell asleep in church, having made a seemingly unwinnable deal with Old Nick. As with Pendle, the first half contains the bulk of the lyrics alongside time changes, tempo changes, all of which are taken in their stride as if nothing was amiss, nobody ever missing a beat; the second half of the track is more like a highlights reel of the best of the riffs of the first half. Of course, it’s all enhanced by ever more church organ, and some tubular bells that Mike Oldfield would surely approve of.
Next, there’s Peg Powler, the tale of the cursed river hag of the Tees who would sweep unsuspecting children to a watery grave. This is, I would say, the weirdest track on the album; it doesn’t seem to sit with the others quite so easily, it’s got some strangely discordant passages in the early stages – and I struggled to find any other band to compare it with, coming up only with the obscure Finnish mushroom fanatics, Trollheim’s Grott (which I’m sure will be no help to anyone who’s never heard of them). This track does, however, answer one question I’ve been asked: why do I like Old Corpse Road‘s music so much, when I’ve never had much time for a certain band from Suffolk, for whom Old Corpse Road are open in their admiration? The answer is: Cradle Of Filth would never have attempted the “Mother, may I go out to swim?” passage from about five minutes in, and I suspect they’d also never have touched the acoustic guitar that underlies it. We’ve been here before, as well – the “beware Hob Headless” passage from Hob Headless Rises gave me the same impression five years ago; now, we have the more refined version.
Finally, having explored these five musical folk tales, we are treated to a genuinely new experience; never before have I heard a band thank us for listening at the end of the album, as Closing The Circle – Hail And Farewell does. It is the fitting conclusion of a 64-minute romp through the minds of five (and, formerly, occasionally six) Northerners who have taken their interest in English folklore and crafted it into something utterly wonderful. The album has been severely delayed – let’s not lose sight of that – but it’s given them time to make it absolutely as good as it could be, sanding off any rough edges and giving it several coats of wax polish. The songwriting is a step up from ‘Tis Witching Hour… (which was no slouch in the first place), the production is best described as “sumptuous” (and proves that you don’t need to hire an expensive big-name producer when you can get results like this from one your former band members…) – and if you remember what I wrote at the end of my review of Moonsorrow‘s Jumalten Aika (remind yourselves here), it is clear that Helsinki’s grandmasters of the genre are not going to be having it all their own way this year.
“The defences will be impenetrable to 99.999% of bands out there, but there is the tiniest crack left open that the likes of Xanthochroid or Old Corpse Road might just be able to breach if they get their new albums spot on.”
Old Corpse Road have just inserted a very long crowbar into that crack.