If progressive rock — early ’70s style, British Isles version — has been making a comeback lately, why not its attendant cousin, progressive folk? There’s been sufficient time for both to fall out of favor, be buried in the dusty stacks of thrift record shops, and get unearthed years later by new generations that see such music as neither dated nor unintentionally hilarious — Devendra Banhart’s fetish with forgotten folkie Vashti Bunyan being the most obvious example.
True, the Manchester-based triad Starless & Bible Black (their name originating from a Dylan Thomas poem as well as the title of a King Crimson album) apes the tradition of British prog-folk from Pentangle and Steeleye Span to Fairport Convention and John & Beverly Martyn. But it doesn’t encase it in amber; thankfully, no recorders were used on their self-titled debut. To the contrary, they seem to find a missing link between those groups and the latter-day sonic atmospherics of the Cocteau Twins. Both Sandy Denny and Robin Guthrie would be proud.
Yes, Starless & Bible Black’s music conjures images of foggy moors, mist-covered forests and old crumbling runes dripping with moss — but those images fight with crumbling textile factories and rotting technology. The songs on their self-titled debut are characterized by Peter Phillipson’s spare banjo, guitar, harmonica and dulcimer, augmented by Raz Ullah’s electronic squiggles and guitar distortions, and soft breathy female and male vocals intermingling with a pale electronic muzz that doesn’t overwhelm the music’s organic qualities. The results could be called “prog-folktronica.”
The opening “Everyday And Everynight” shuffles along with a scraping, credit-card-on-cheek-stubble beat that’s propelled by an insinuating double-bass line. On gallic ditties such as “Sirene” and the Velvet Underground-esque “Hermoine”, French chanteuse Helene Gautier’s slow-burn vocals exist somewhere between twee and torch without becoming irritating — no small feat for either of those styles.
The more traditional-sounding “Bitter Cup” apes a boozy sea chantey (“Whiskey runs through me like a sorrowful river”), and one can just imagine a pubful of cider mugs being hefted and swayed to its infectious lilt. The epic “B.B.” starts in a sort of freeform acoustic tumble before employing a theremin for its woozy, double-vision finale. The album’s best song is the closer, the tender chorale “016-013″, in which the title is worked into the rhyme as ingeniously as “867-5309″.