, August 27th, 2016 08:43
On reading books about the untold stories of Britain’s history of visionary and underground music, such as Rob Young’s Electric Eden, and David Keenan’s England’s Hidden Reverse, it becomes apparent that – across generations – there’s an unending cultural battle over what can be called the “soul” of the music that is felt to represent England and its people. Ostensibly termed “Folk” music, for many people such a term conjures up music and a world view obsessed with look, tradition, and a concept of “authenticity” all in a quest to find a true essence and aesthetic of a sound that can be preserved in aspic. The result of such ideas has often led to a virulent strain of music played by well-intentioned bohemian types dressed in an assortment of waistcoats, wide brimmed hats, beards and tattoos, aping 5th cycle photocopies of The Incredible String Band’s wild children of the forest shtick.
The reality though is that an essentialist idea of the music and soul of “The people” of Britain hasn’t existed in a long time. If you’re going to get real about folk music of any kind then you have to get back to first fundamentals – it is music that simply conveys people, places, and events. And Britain is a mongrel nation that contains a multitude of histories, sounds and stories. It is a land of a surfeit of places where time and consciousness doesn’t move in a linear fashion, instead it loops, circles, and folds back on itself, weaving in various fashions. As writers such as Alan Moore to Ian Sinclair have shown, stay in one place for long enough and you can begin to sense various objects, landscapes, and events unceremoniously heaped on top of each other. And they don’t stay as discrete, separate moments either – they bleed and pollute each other, becoming a densely layered slurry of experience. There is no true golden time or age, no true “authentic” experience because it doesn’t exist – it never did. All duration bleeds into itself, the past with the modern, the future reworking the past.
It’s this mindset that needs bearing in mind listening to Toll — the new album from Kemper Norton on the Front and Follow label. The Cornwall-born, but Brighton-residing, “slurtronic” folk musician revels in teasing apart and laying out the breakdown of barriers of perception, what Norton has termed “the uncanny in the everyday”. Casting an eye on the way events, places, legends, and myths, shift and morph in our minds as time and duration indelibly stain their meanings, his previous albums, 2013’s Carn and 2014’s Loor, have concerned themselves with ideas of old folk ritual invocations and songs transplanted to modern urban climbs, alongside various uncanny events experienced in his travels along Cornwall and his adopted home county of Sussex.
With Toll, Norton concerns himself with the Torrey Canyon incident where, in 1967, the Torrey Canyon oil tanker wrecked itself off the coast of Cornwall on the infamous Seven Stones Reef off Lands’ End. With the ship vomiting 32-million gallons of crude oil, and efforts to clean up the mess, from the use of toxic detergents to setting the slick on fire, exacerbating an already huge environmental disaster, the Torrey Canyon incident, according to Norton in Toll, not only affected the Cornish coastline for decades, it also poisoned the area’s deep time and its folklore and legends.
The submerged landscape and milieu of Toll, is one where the notion of purity and a golden age and place has been wrecked, sullied by the actions and greed of men. The opening track ‘Yadnik’, heralds the arrival of the tanker with a twisted metallic roar of drones and horn blares as it crashes thought and invades the lost Cornish kingdom of Lyonesse, the home of fabled Arthurian hero Tristan. The impact of the incident in ‘Yadnik’ can be felt throughout the album as Norton laments the destruction wrought upon Lyonesse, as it is fractured and strewn across a topographical wreckage. Toll becomes becomes a place of abandoned villages and vengeful spirits, of a reckoning that has yet to be realised, and where the ambient techno wisps of Aphex Twin and trip-hop bass rhythms from the far lands of Bristol lap up against the driftwood and remnants of local folk song.
Norton catalogues such a landscape with a mix of melancholy and anger. On ‘Black Silk’, he lulls with the ghostly foreboding lines “Black rain and darkness descending/Reach out and strike without warning/Rise up one midsummer morning/A gift from the Summer of Love”, accompanied with repeating piano motif, cyclic drones and looping rhythms. There is the submerged sludge and crawl of the black tar that can be heard in ‘Sirens’ as muffled call outs, underwater bass pulses and rave calls mix with the crude to provide a gloopy, sticky affect to your ears. Central to Toll’s main narrative strand are three ambient sound pieces titled ‘Seven Stones’, which traverse the spectrum of haunted desolation and otherworldly rumblings of the first two pieces, to a softer, almost serene form of intensity and mood that comes from the treated piano sound of the third piece. As Norton provides a closing folk clarion call of the Torres Canyon disaster in the closing track ‘The Tide’, the fiery metal drones of the opening track are accompanied by Norton’s guileless lyrics reminiscent of the simple folk song ‘Baloo My Boy’ from Ben Wheatley’s A Field in England, as if Sunn o))) were his backing musicians.
Toll shows Norton is surely becoming a master of music that, alongside other modern outlier visionaries such as Daniel Patrick Quinn, is not concerned with purity and nostalgia, but instead pieces itself together from the flotsam and jetsam of sounds and tales that collect all around us. The fact that with Toll he creates a folklore where ancient tales of Breton Princess riding the seas atop a fearsome horse (‘Dahut’) and characters from the PC MMORPG game Dark Age of Camelot (‘Danaoin’) are given equal weight and importance bear this out. The music meanwhile may seem at times poised and controlled - a staple of electronic music created through laptop means – but bubbling underneath is a teeming mass of sadness and loss that evokes the mutable mess of history, myth, and duration.