by Oliver Sheppard
Better late than never, this list comprises, in no particular order, the 6 best neofolk releases from 2012. Of course, neofolk grew out of the postpunk (Death in June) and post-industrial (Current 93) movements to become a genre all its own by the late 1980s. Since the days when Death in June, Sol Invictus, and Current 93 ruled as the paramount neofolk trifecta, the genre has remained dominated by European acts. In recent years, though, American projects like Cult of Youth and King Dude have made strong showings, something reflected in the following selections.
WREATHES – self-titled
Containing members of Kinit Her and Burial Hex, Wreathes are a duo whose melodies rely on deep, Nordic-sounding vocalizations that see the two singers employing their voices in a mutually complementary, if darkly melodic, way. The first track, “Odes,” is sung in English, but it doesn’t sound like it; it’s reminiscent of something ancient, cold, and mournful, punctuated by sparing but nonetheless martial percussion that lends the track a feeling of stern militancy. (Think of the ancient Icelandic folk song “Krummavisur.”) The second track, “Bones of Love,” features prominent stringed instruments and a metronomic, trudging, dirge-like beat – and again the deep, wonderful vocals of Nathaniel Ritter and Troy Schafer, the two principal members.
CULT OF YOUTH – Love Will Prevail LP
The newest and third Cult of Youth LP, Love Will Prevail, came out in September. On Sacred Bones, the record showcases Cult of Youth’s relentless desire to drive forward and experiment with new sounds, incorporating a broader swath of instrumentation and influences than were on display on their previous two recordings, which included their excellent — and now seminal — sophomore, self-titled LP. Like Death in June, Cult of Youth are at core a neofolk band — and also like Death in June, they have foundational ties to the punk scene. Again like Death in June, they prove with each new release that they are able to transcend the limitations of the genre.
The unmistakable core of neofolk that includes constantly-strummed acoustic guitars remains very much on display on Love Will Prevail. This, however, is couched in an impressive array of ancillary instrumentation. This enables singer Sean Ragon’s band to hit new and impressive tones, opening windows on possible avenues for future sonic experimentation. Strings, wind instruments, and trumpets are utilized tactically and tastefully on this LP, which alternatese between more traditional neofolk numbers and slightly more lush, atmospheric pieces. There’s even a thrashy surprise thrown in here and there, too. Love Will Prevail really is one of those rare “next level” LPs that bands always strive to create.
ART ABSCONs – Les Sentiers Ternels LP
Art Abscons is a neofolk act I’ve been late in appreciating. The green goblin mask worn by the singer threw me off and honestly didn’t help in persuading me to check out the music. Then, in 2011, Art Abscons released a pretty brilliant neofolk/deathrock crossover EP, “October 31st,” that piqued my interest (although I didn’t get to hear that amazing release ’til late in the game, either). Abscons has worked with some of the best neofolk performers around, including with members of Osewoudt and Luftwaffe. Due to the strange goblin appearance when performing live, I’ve taken to referring to Mr. Abscons as “the Mortiis of neofolk.” Abscons’ usual music, however, is a very refined — I would even say “classical” — neofolk style that explores softer, even beautiful, melodies, usually sung in French or German. Les Sentiers Ternel is a drowsy and often downright pretty LP of lilting, dreamy neofolk music — not the sort of thing you would expect a Tolkien-esque goblin mutant creature to make. (As Art Abscons himself explained in an interview, “My ‘nom de plume’ is Abscon and refers to a small town in France which is of special personal significance to me. ‘Abscons,’ however, is also a very interesting French word meaning ‘difficult to ‘understand,’ ‘strange,’ ‘obscure,’ etc.”) Art Abscons songs are well-crafted, lapidary, perfect nuggets of the best that contemporary European neofolk has to offer, and this is on full display on Les Sentiers Ternel.
ROME – Hell Money
Along with Of the Wand and the Moon, Rome are one of the big guns of the newer, post-1990s wave of neofolk acts. Their 2009 Flowers from Exile LP was a watershed moment in the development of the crossover appeal of the genre, mixing elements of goth (some sly Sisters of Mercy influences were detectable here and there) with the classic sounds of early 90s, Rose Clouds of Holocaust-era Death in June. Indeed, newcomers to Rome should go to Mass Mensch Material, Flowers from Exile, and Nos Chants Perdus first. The last two major efforts from Rome, including the bloated and sprawling 3 disc Die Æsthetik Der Herrschaftsfreiheit LP and this, their newest, Hell Money LP, feel comparatively padded and unfocused. Hell Money has more of a spartan feel than previous efforts, and quite a few of the songs seem positively extraneous, like discarded tracks from previous albums. Having said that, even a middling Rome release is better than what most bands in the neofolk/martial genre can muster; the tracks “Amsterdam, The Clearing” and “Golden Boy,” present on Hell Money, are as good as any tracks Rome have made in the past ten years. Although there is still some ambient filler of the sort that diluted the Die Æsthetik release, and which feels cynically tacked on in an effort to make the LP longer than EP length, singer and songwriter Jerome Reuter has shown that he still has it in him to make darkly compelling neofolk songs when he puts the effort into it. Hell Money has a few pleasant surprises up its sleeve.
KING DUDE – Burning Daylight
King Dude — whose name, as I’ve said before, is a little too close to something like “Kid Rock” for me (but that, as I understand it, is part of the joke) — is considered a neofolk musician by association, but the music especially on this latest LP calls to mind more the sort of modern American country noir of artists like Bonnie Prince Billy, 16 Horsepower, and Haunted George. It’s stripped down, intentionally lo-fi, with a primitive, dark, and almost hollow sound; croaking vocals intone about the darker side of religion and rural American life, putting one in the mind of old Appalachian ghost stories. King Dude’s Burning Daylight LP really seems to be more a mining of the dark religious underbelly of the south — the “Southern Gothic” aesthetic that has so fascinated artists as diverse as Flannery O’Connor, Nick Cave, Johnny Cash, and others. Burning Daylight’s songs owe as much to Lee Hazlewood as to Of the Wand and the Moon. (And Of the Wand and the Moon owe something to Lee Hazlewood, too, for that matter.) As Ryan O’Connor wrote on this website in 2011, King Dude’s music often sounds “like a Smithsonian Folkway recorded at an Appalachian Satanic commune.” That description is still apt for Burning Daylight.
KINIT HERR – Storms of Radiance LP
Although Kinit Her are from Wisconsin, there is a more Euro-folk sensibility in their music than with current US bands like King Dude or Cult of Youth, who both seem comparatively American. The opening track on the LP, “Storm of Hyacinths I,” is actually a fairly menacing number featuring vintage picked instruments and mournful strings, punctuated by the incantatory-like vocal chants of the brotherly duo that head the band. Spectral howling can be heard in the distance and stern, martial drumming is used tastefully once the song gets rolling. Some ambient sampling is used to create an otherworldly atmosphere of dread. Storms of Radiance overall is more on the expansive-sounding Current 93 side of the dark folk spectrum, utilizing a variety of string and percussive instruments along with chorus-y vocalizations, and not so much like, say, Death in June’s The Rule of Thirds. The LP has an overall more experimental, post-industrial, Current 93 or Moon Lay Hidden Beneath a Cloud feel. If it’s music to stir ancient spirits in the blood that you need, Kinit Her have delivered. Storms of Radiance resonates with a sad and haunting beauty that mourns the loss of the majesty of how things once were.
Karma Marata’s Das Sturmläuten LP.