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The Eccentronic Research Council And Maxine Peake
1612 Underture John Doran , August 22nd, 2012 08:39

Throughout the 17th century, witch-hunt fever was spreading virulently through the UK. Remote communities, once infected, turned in upon themselves and burned up. The lousy fate of some of these women – usually traditional herbalists or healers – was only matched by the outlandishness of the claims made against them. In Bideford in 1682, Temperance Lloyd was accused of practicing witchcraft, with one specific charge referring to her "discourse" with the Devil who had adopted the shape of a black man. One of the many witnesses who testified against her was Anne Wakely, who claimed to have seen the black man/Satan, visit Lloyd as a magpie.

Witches, with their cunning ways, were often thought capable of transforming their appearance to disguise their true nature themselves, so perhaps it's apt that this album is not at all what it seems. On first glance, the cover art of 1612 Underture; the preponderance of vintage synths – patched to sound as if they're being played by men in white lab coats - and the subject matter (the Pendle Witch Trials) all point towards one thing: hauntology. But this excellent record on Manchester's Bird label isn't some generic late adopter's attempt to take on the Moon Wiring Club, rather a genuinely unhinged, unique and deliciously weird pop album. (The name of the band kind of gives the game away really. Eccentronic? Oh do behave.)

The ERC are a self-styled collective of "artists, sound designers, experimental pop performers, writers [and] poets", led primarily by Sheffield musicians Adrian Flanagan and Dean Honer (formerly of The All Seeing I). They have conjured up a beguiling brew of elektronische, keyboard led psych, synth pop and analogue ambient to act as the musical accompaniment to a prose poem. The narration – mainly carried out by TV actor Maxine Peake – is based around a (part fictional) account of a psychogeographical trip taken by a priest and a nun from Salford to Pendle to learn more about the town's most notorious daughters.

And although Temperance Lloyd was remarkable in that she was the last of the UK's 500 women to be hanged by the state for withcraft, the Pendle witches remain the most infamous, given that ten of them were killed some 70 years earlier in 1612 – hence the title. As likely as not, none of the women (and the one man) did anything more serious than commit contempt of court. The album does not pull its punches when it comes to the failures of "religious, historic and forensic integrity", however. The court clerk Thomas "James" Potts – and his shrivelled genitals – comes in for particular criticism for purposefully recording the minutes of the trial incorrectly so as to have better material for his book, The Wonderfull Discoverie Of Witches In The Countie Of Lancaster about the affair.

The album opens with Kraftwerk tribute 'Autobahn 666' which name checks the diabolical road that leads from Salford to Pendle in Lancashire. The A666 may be a favourite location for young UK heavy metal bands to get out of their transit vans and have their photographs taken, for obvious reasons, but on 1612 Underture it is a starting point on a journey to find out more about the women who were murdered by the state exactly 400 years ago. This scaled back British road trip (undertaken in a Hillman Minx) also takes in a Visitor's Centre, complete with audio guide by Dr Who and the graveyard in which Alice Nutter is buried.

The words are Flanagan's, and they sparkle with wit and economy (as well as occasionally spilling over into righteous anger and once or twice, incomprehensibility), not just dealing with the plight of witches but with equal authority on the subject of the "20th Century Lancashire/Yorkshire barm cake versus bread cake debacle". (As he so rightly and succinctly states, via Maxine Peake: "It's a barm cake." But then, I'm from a town that had a sandwich shop called Barmageddon, so I may be biased.)

The real revelation here however is Maxine Peake herself, who is ideal to front this project for several reasons. The first is that this fine Boltonian actor arguably first came to public prominence while playing Veronica in Shameless, the initially dead smart and hilarious portrayal of the so-called feral underclass, the so-called feckless and undeserving poor or, to put it bluntly, the so-called chavs. Of course, this series played fast and loose with the prejudices of some of its middle class, university educated audience in London (and Deansgate, Didsbury and Chorlton Cum Hardy as well, no doubt). The show's creators were certainly aware eight years ago that vast swathes of working class people in the UK were in the process of being demonised by the Government and the mainstream media. Well, the Pendle Witches were no different. They were certainly the popular bogeymen of their day. Female spell-casting hoodies and Asbo collectors on broomsticks, if you will. Rachel Hasted, historian and Pendle Witch Trial expert, said as much, stating that Lancashire was perceived to be a lawless and godless county in the early 17th century and was "fabled for its theft, violence and sexual laxity", and where the locals didn't care much for the teachings of the bible.

The second is the grain of Peake's voice; its rich burr and skittering cadences make her a joy to listen to. Flanagan persuaded Peake to sing on just one of the tracks, the fantastic Mancunian Lee Hazelwood and Nancy Sinatra in the Radiophonic Workshop magic of 'Another Witch Is Dead', in which the pair are joined by Philly Smith, of the Sheffield group The Chanteuse And The Crippled Claw.

But the album gives up its true nature slowly. Of course, it reveals itself in the closing songs to be a satire on current times and a reflection on how much things haven't changed all that much over the last four centuries, with working class communities still hopelessly fragmented but now by gentrification, racism, junk culture and sexism. Except it is delivered in the form of a witch's curse on Cameron's Britain. So, scientific rationalism be damned! Let's hope this spell has some effect, no matter how weak.