First visit: this album, Tara Burke’s fifth as Fursaxa, does so many things that any right-thinking person would love that it’s impossible not to fall for it instantly. It immediately draws you into its soundworld, for one, the repeated descents of the brief ‘Introduction’ leading the listener, white rabbit-like, into a shadowed, rarefied place. When ‘Lunaria Enters The Blue Lodge’, woody drones seep from the halls and alcoves to create a hallowed atmosphere that seems set to envelop with misty fingers, before an abrupt tack leftward ends on unsettling voices circling a disjointed strum. There’s some impressive alchemy performed here from frugal beginnings, like the ghostly chorale of ‘Nawne Ye’ that consists of nothing but Burke’s voice layered and curling around itself, or the title track’s simple mandolin figure that flickers behind a crystal screen of wordless song. If the title’s meant onomatopoeically, the midnight forest is a wonderful place to be.
First return: Fursaxa’s music has always been about atmosphere and intimation, weaving simple layers of organ drone, acoustic guitar and percussion into dense tapestries threaded with her multitracked vocals. Her reliance on vocals and the pure, circular nature of the melodies they sing give the music a spiritual air, occasionally evocative of plainsong. But even compared with its immediate predecessor, 2005′s Lepidoptera, Alone In The Dark Wood relies less on traditional melody or structure. The lunar humming of ‘Cle Elum’ recreates with sourceless acoustics the shimmering lunar soundscape breathed out by Biosphere’s Geir Jenssen on Autour de la Lune. Or there’s ‘Bells Of Capistrano’, where a cloud of flutes hovers around churchly chimes.
Diminishing return: something else that Burke has opted to change on this album is the employment of length to maintain her carefully wrought atmospheres. Many of these 13 songs can most usefully be described as tone poems, snippets of sonic environments that drift apart before leaving a mark. Which is all very well, but I don’t think I’m being selfish in wanting to spend more time being silvered by the moon of ‘Cle Elum’. Longer spent ‘Drinking Wine In Yarrow’ would also be good, its plucked guitars, banjos and assorted shakers talking together like the No Neck Blues Band, but it’s as if those revered heads developed ADHD and gave up after a minute or two. Upon repeated listening, even the longer songs like the title track and the witchy ‘Black Haw’ seem to break their embrace too soon, and a little frustration creeps in.
Slight return: the music on Alone In The Dark Wood is often mesmerisingly beautiful, but it has to be considered something of a failure on its own terms. Fursaxa sets out to cast a spell, to entrance and hold the listener in her sonic universe; but by trying to tease out so many dimensions of her sound, she seems to have diluted its essential impact. These songs need more time to unfurl, to truly seep in and transport. Bear this in mind, though, and there’s plenty to marvel at here.
[ATP; April 16, 2007]