Laura Cannell

Midwinter Processionals

Laura Cannell’s latest is an easy entry into the alternative holiday canon, but it deserves much more than that, says Bernie Brooks

Full disclosure: I am irritatingly into the holidays. I have, in the past, referred to myself as a ‘Christmas Guy’, and I will do again. Were it not for my sensible and patient partner, I’d leave our holiday bric-a-brac out until Candlemas at least. To call this my favourite time of year is an understatement, really. That said, the things about the season that get me going generally eschew the late-capitalist and veer toward the pre-Christian, or maybe those early, syncretic practices where the apostolic and pagan first intertwined. Give me old songs and ghost stories and folk traditions, give me things that put the magic in the air. Chuck your Hallmark movies in the bin, and – while you’re at it – the bulk of your Christmas music, too.

Now, before you run me out on a rail, I’m not entirely immune to Mariah going ham on ‘All I Want For Christmas Is You’, or to that ever-present holiday wall of sound whipped up by a certain despicable psycho in a ridiculous wig. Still, my Xmas tunes of choice are often not Xmas tunes at all. Instead, they’re tracks that capture the sensations that make the season so wonderful: a sense of mystery, of quiet stillness, of ceremony, of intoxicating and bittersweet melancholy, of the warmth of home. It’s no wonder, then, that Laura Cannell’s work – an often-improvisational blend of folk, medieval, and avant-garde music – is well-played during the Brooks family Christmas.

Aptly described by her label, Brawl Records, as “the new alternative winter/Christmas soundtrack,” I’m all-in on Cannell’s latest long-player, Midwinter Processionals, before I’ve even dropped the metaphorical needle. No stranger to seasonal and more overtly holiday-oriented fare, Cannell’s wintry releases include New Christmas Rituals with Andre Bosman and the December Sounds and Winter Rituals EPs, both with Kate Ellis. Her December album drop has become something of an annual tradition in recent years. And for me, a highly anticipated one.

Midwinter Processionals is no let down. Just the opposite, really. Put simply, this is an album capable of both heartbreaking delicacy and astounding emotional heft. Recorded between her studio and a 900-year-old cathedral, Cannell does what it seems she always does when put in a situation such as this: captures the soul of a space through sound. The result is as ancient and grand as anything, as worn down and buckled, as full of life, as sacred.

It’s probably wrongheaded of me, but I think of Cannell as an artist interested in following discrete threads, often devoting albums to each. There’s the recorder record (Antiphony of the Trees), the vocal record (Sing As The Crow Flies with Polly Wright), the violin record (Hunter Huntress Hawker), the art pop records she makes as Hunteress. That project excepted, her tool set is pared down by most standards, typically consisting of her trademark violin and recorders and not much more.

Here, though, Cannell really braids some of those once-discrete threads together, marrying the synthetic grandeur of Hunteress with the violin and recorder of the albums made under her own name, and in the process creates a soundworld that feels distinct among her catalogue. When that kick drum first knocks on opener ‘Memories Of Stars’, it’s almost shocking. Cannell plays synths like she’s scoring a 70s sci-fi flick, and despite sounding like a strange companion to her more traditional instrumentation, it just works. Sort of like a cold-weather, UK counterpart to the delightful synthy Americana of Chuck Johnson’s ‘Anamet’.

In a way, it seems wrong to write about this record in the context of the holidays. Doing so imparts a specific use case, a sort of annual expiry date, and Midwinter Processionals deserves so much more than that. Cannell deserves so much more than that. In a year that has seen so many people dialling into the power of folk music, it’s crucial that Cannell, who has been excelling in and around the genre for over a decade, doesn’t get lost in the scrum.

As for me, for the last week or so, almost daily as I make coffee, I’ve been cueing up Midwinter Processionals followed by Dorothy Carter’s timeless Waillee Waillee. I sit at my kitchen table, warm mug in hand, watching the sun rise over frosty, stubbornly upright seed heads in my garden, the scene grey-brown with dashes of evergreen. It’s a ritual I expect will persist with some regularity until Candlemas, and likely well beyond. It puts the magic in the air.

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