Andrew Sherwell – Orthodox Tales (Whitelabel Recs, 2018)

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Myth and folklore, mysterious oral traditions and stories passed down through the generations, imbibed with some enigmatic kernel of truth and origin story. Strange hermetic characters and unusual individuals become immortalised, their odd lives turned into caricature and distorted into the supernatural, the stories told of them becoming more distant from the truth with each retelling until almost nothing remains.

The mournful air that hangs about Orthodox Tales may stem from the woozy nostalgia of his grandfather’s storytelling, or perhaps from the sad strangeness of the source material. Either way there’s an immersive aspect to the tunes here, something in their spectral sound that draws the listener into the dreamworld as we allow ourselves a moment in the suspension of disbelief.

Opening “In Baba’s Yaga Hut” takes us into the realm of Baba Yaga, her home a chicken-legged hut that can transport her about the forest. It hovers in smokey and intimate drones, humming vocals emanating out of the ethereal occupant with distal and tribal spontaneity. It circles close, the tones as warped and bent as the limbs and features of the mystical woman, or perhaps as twisted as the legend.

It transmutes into antithetical “Of Vasilissa’s Beauty” as crinkling waves of static pass over glowing choral drones. It surges and pulsates like a Geiger counter buzzing and flickering as it approaches a radioactive source, adrenaline spiking in consumptive waves as we get closer to the legendary beauty. Even in tales our heart races to think of her, which sets us into the dreamy core of the record.

Couplet “And the Smoke of the Incence” and “Cathedral Doze” drift by lazily as we become lulled into sleep, the soft murmuring of the storyteller lowering us gently into rest. Diffuse and radiative swells of drone hum from the thrown light of the projector in “Smoke of the Incence”, passing into pastoral scenes as church bells ring and little birds sing. It’s followed by even further indistinction, irreverent sleep overcoming tired souls in the sacrosanct space of the quiet church, all soft rustling and echoic space.

This descent into delta waves makes the mind alive, the stories come to life inside our own head. They take on a darkness with new depth, a fresh melancholia as the tales manifest themselves. Penultimate “A Mesultane’s Flight” hums in grey and resolute drones, the vocals that swirl ethereally through dour and almost pained in expression. They orbit a void and the piece slowly sinks, petering out into a hushed silence and pregnant pause that underscore its miserable, visceral end.

And then “Beware Koschei’s Visit” closes, its comparatively long run time affording an elongate experience within the bleak. Its foundations ring deep and resonant, like sepulchral breaths from a catacomb or out of the miserable dungeon from which Koschei comes. His release creates a tension in the storied energy here, fear settling within in gathering waves; laboured breathing and brooding chants appear like a death sentence, a skeletal rattle of hissing air menacing the soul. Female sobbing cements the torment of this dark piece before it slides off into nothingness, the tale’s spookiness evaporating into the vapour it came from, as thin and nonsubstantive as the gas that carried it.

None of these characters or worlds are real, though their inspirations may well have been, now distorted by the lens of time and the influence of generations of oral history. Despite that they carry a weight, an unsettling sense of reality to them, a hovering “what-if?”. There must be a reason these stories have withstood the test of time; perhaps that is just the power of a good story.

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