When I first learned that Masaki Batoh, enigmatic frontman of the wondrously magical avant-psych band Ghost, and Swedish-born Helena Espvall, vocalist, guitarist and cellist of the equally magical folk-rock outfit Espers, were to release a record of their collaborative efforts, a wave of excitement swept me out of my shoes and into a frenzy of inspired musings that lead to an impulse purchase of a bottle of Framboise Lambic. After many repeat listenings of Helena Espvall & Masaki Batoh, their simply self-titled release, I can safely say that not only does the record pair well with the sweet, frothy drink, but also complements those early Halloween decoration displays that are beginning to pop up all over town. The record and the drink spurred a flip through my battered old D&D Monster’s Compendium which led me to conjure a mental picture of a romantic tapestry woven by two modern day minstrels who, after recognizing their great esteem for one another, slipped away from their bands’ respective gypsy caravans silently in the night, running away together to the far reaches of the northern wilderness, making beautiful music together all the way.
Of course, my tastes for picturesque exaggeration and raspberry tinged ale have likely overrun the reality that is quite reasonably the result of a season spent jamming by two proficient multi-instrumentalists who, in riffing on each others folky sensibilities, managed to produce a collection of seriously pretty, mysterious rambles.
What I like best about this record is that I sounds almost as modern as it sounds mediaeval, like Pre-Raphaelite painting with oils that haven’t quite dried yet. One painting in particular, Sir John Everett Millais’s Mariana, is called to mind. In the painting a lady gazes from her window and stretches awkwardly, looking like she has only just stood up to take a break from her embroidery.
I find that this record is like the lady in this painting in many ways. The embroidery represents a time consuming and intricate labor of love requiring a certain level of skill in terms of composition and execution, which is exactly how the music sounds: flawless, stellar musicianship from the vocal harmonies to the picking of strings. The lady has an air of royalty about her, one may assume she’s highborn to a mediaeval court based on the aesthetic clues given in the painting; the instruments employed to create the twelve tracks on the record are of a varied, traditionally inspired court: the expected strings that listeners familiar with Espvall’s cello and Batoh’s guitars will undoubtedly recognize, but add to those a
banjo, hurdy gurdy, celtic harp, marimba and other musical curios like whistles, bells, chimes and charms, not to mention a wind machine and something called an ocean drum. All of these instruments, despite their respective birthdates and hearths of origin, work together on the record to evoke a sound that gives a positively “middle ages” impression, even electric guitars. Finally, observing the lady looking out her chamber window only heightens the urge I had when listening to this record to go out-of-doors. In fact the great outdoors are invading the lady's space, evident by the fallen leaves that lie strewn about the room, surely blown through the window by autumnal winds. The music here (whether it be any of the original compositions by Espvall and Batoh, or one of the many traditional Swedish works they gracefully play, or one of the enchanting free improvisational pieces) urges the listener outside much in the way that an overgrown stonewalled garden beckons visitors with a broken gate or the way a forest on the edge of autumn teases wandering feet with the sound of dead leaves rustling. The only aspect of the record that betrays this naturalness and outdoorsy feeling is the glistening production values that, on the whole, lend an eerie clarity to the music and, in my opinion, darken the scene in a deliciously deceptive manner. The birds are not real birds. Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain.
Reading in the liner notes that this record was recorded from December 2007 to January 2008, I am struck with a certain sense of season-specific satisfaction. Say what you will for Halloween and the height of the fall season, but for me the most haunted time of year is the middle of Winter, and this record, if anything, is more haunted Aquarius than anything else. I have always loved the vampiric timbre of Batoh’s voice and it is thrilling to hear to paired with Espvall’s icy thin yet crystal clear vocal power. She even rips into some Swedish herding calls, something I’ve always wanted to indulge in -- amazing! The only wild hair I can find to pick at is an odd cover of Son House's "Death Letter" which, though skillfully done, is the one track on the record that seems a strange departure from the rest; the white lamb in a pack of wooly brown rams. All in all, considering the current turn in the wheel of the year, this record makes for a perfectly timed spooky soundtrack for the season, especially for those who prefer to craft their Halloween costumes by hand and from scratch. Fans of Espers and Ghost who don’t already have this record, I have no words for you, but to all you Gjallarhorn and Garmarna fans out there, put down your needlework and check out this out already. Trust me when I say you need it.