this review originally appeared in Thaumaturgy, a blog dedicated to new experimental and psychedelic music
Thursday, February 24, 2005
Xenis Emputae Travelling Band, A Selenographic Lens
Xenis Emputae Travelling Band, The North Sea & Xenis Emputae Travelling Band split
An interesting- and by now, quite well-established- subgenre of the "free folk" scene has arisen over the past few years. Call it "environmental improvisation", "pantheist punk", "psychogeographic ether-folk", or what-you-will, but the number of young men who, upon first exposure to the Jewelled Antler aesthetic, were inspired to pick up their Mini-Disc recorders and record their next spontaneous "opus for guitar and birdsong" in the backyard (present company included) is growing too numerous to count, and predictably, there's a lot of crap clogging up the scene right now. While Phil Legard may share some methodological similarities with the Antler chaps and their disciples, his own blend of rural psychedelia stands head and shoulders above the legions of Blithe Grandsons whose ridiculously limited edition cd-rs are the bread-and-butter of blogs such as this.
Though the name conjures images of a wandering minstrel harlequinade, XETB is in fact the ongoing solo project of one Phil Legard, a Leeds-based musician who has made it his musical mission to map the psychogeography of the magickal sites of Northern England. Over several years and (if I count correctly) 9 releases, Legard has tapped into the timeline and ley lines of England's longstanding occult tradition, and is the only act in recent history that has been able to don the same sorcerer's robes that Jhonn Balance and David Michael(nee Tibet)have worn without evoking so much as a snigger. It's a dangerous game to try to meld magickal theory, British paganism and folklore, Medievally-inspired melodies and instrumentation and lo-fi electronics without coming off as pretentious or arch, but somehow Legard pulls it off with grace and style to spare.
A "typical" Xenis Emputae song, if such a thing can be said to exist, usually encapsulates several recurring elements. As Legard himself has noted, the recording site itself is essential to the proceedings, serving as both instrument and inspiration for Legard, in which the swirl of wind and the patter of rainfall often provide the backdrop for Legard's creative channeling of/conversation with the genius loci of a place, be it windswept tor, ancient church or some other spiritually charged locale. Instrumentation varies. Whereas earlier releases tended towards the more electronic side of things, XETB's more recent works have seen him embracing a more sparse and acoustic palette of strings and woodwinds, with Legard's mournful baritone voice incanting songs and spells atop it all. Will-o-wisps course through the circuitboards of mud-caked synths, while ghostly troubadors pluck banjos and zithers with phantom fingers. It's creakily archaic, yet undeniably current.
Two of XETB's more recent releases are exemplary additions to his already impressive and prolific discography. A Selenographic Lens, a 3" cd-r released last year on Legard's own Larkfall imprint, comprises 2 tracks of dark whimsy. On the first and most compelling of the tracks, "Bogle Burn", a lone banjo plucks out a simple melody, while a pocket symphony of recorders, singing bowls and other instruments gradually contribute their voices to a swelling drone in the background. "Alchemy at Kutna Hora" is a far more abstract and unsettling affair, a hollow mixture of groaning reeds (harmonium? accordian?), rattling percussion, struck and bowed violin, and the muffled whine of a banshee trapped in a bell jar. Though unlike each other in emotional tenor, both tracks serve as fine examples of the more improvisational side of Legard's ouvre.
XETB's half of a split album with fellow melodic drone-merchant The North Sea (A.K.A. Brad Rose, curator of the Foxy Digitalis webzine and related labels) showcases the more focused and meditative side of Legard's musical persona. Across 4 tracks and 20 minutes, XETB captures misty musical snapshots of ancient England in his scrying pool. The track "British Primitive Music" is the best of them, and one could not imagine a title more descriptive or befitting. Here, accomplished modal fingerpicking dances over fluttering recorders, sawing violin and chimes, creating a sublime Indo-Anglic hybrid that Davey Graham himself would have been proud to call his own.
Indebited equally to British folk and the darker side of the ambient spectrum, XETB's music is a beguiling and strikingly original amalgam of the old and the new. His is truly one of the most unique voices echoing across the musical ether today. Well worth checking out!