Alone in the Dark Wood

by Jennifer Kelly

12 July 2007

Philadelphia's Tara Burke weaves freaky medieval harmonies, and space-age instrumental soundtracks out of multitracked voice, guitar, organ and fairy dust... strange magick indeed.

Dark madrigals for the 21st century

Fursaxa’s fifth full-length begins with a vertiginous howl, it’s lead-off track “Intro” a sort of dopplered drop hurtling the listener through altered voice and sound.  It only lasts 16 seconds, but it’s enough to transport you into a wholly separate space, which is where you’ll stay for the duration of this haunted medieval abbey of an album.  These 13 compositions slip dreamily, one into the other, their spidery taut guitars melting into lush atmospheric plain song, weird pennywhistles winding into arabesques of organ overtones.  There’s hardly a distinguishable word on the album, yet the message is unmistakeable.  This is music as timeless, shapeless and all-embracing as life itself.  If you breathe it, you’ll get dizzy. 

Fursaxa is, of course, the Philadelphian free folk artist Tara Burke.  She spans the full range of the Terrastock folk/rock/improv universe, having collaborated with both Acid Mothers Temple and Meg Baird.  She works, apparently, alone here.  No other artists are credited in the liner notes.  Still there is nothing solitary, or terse or personal about these songs.  They unfold luxuriously, Burke’s voice layered upon itself in ghostly medieval madrigals, her mad staccato guitar strums backed by bangs and clatter and rolls of percussion. 

cover art


Alone in the Dark Wood

(ATP Recordings)
US: 1 May 2007
UK: 23 Apr 2007

Consider, for instance, the title track, which emerges from an off-tuned, three-based guitar pattern, as stark and geometrical and intense.  Yet from this Burke’s unearthly voice emerges, cool and almost too lovely to be human, wordless, siren-seductive.  Halfway through the track, the pattern changes, guitar notes lower and more reverberant, four-based and dirge-like.  The voices drift from far away, still beautiful but colder, more ominous, discordant, a ghost’s fingers on your neck.  The piece turns darker almost imperceptibly, the same elements twisting into more threatening patterns.

The most beautiful of these cuts is perhaps “Nawne Ye”, a modal vocal line looped over itself in round-like patterns, four or five iterations going on at a time, all of them in Burke’s lovely voice.  There is no other instrument here but voice, yet the piece is almost unbearably complex; you lose yourself following one voice, as it loops over and under and around the others.  “Rattling the Calabash,” is denser and more varied, pitting shaken percussion, drums and solitary organ lines against exotically pitched guitar plucking.  A slow march’s rhythm pushes the piece forward, and Burke’s voice is earthier, more foreign.  It sounds North African, then Middle Eastern, and then simply sublimely strange, yet tied to the world through its drums and tambourine rattles.  “Of Tubal Gain” leans more towards rock, with its distorted electric guitar slashes under slow-blooming vocal notes; you can imagine Burke collaborating in this fashion with contemporaries like Bardo Pond and Jackie O Motherfucker. 

Burke finds unworldly beauty in many different places, in medieval chants and multivoiced rounds, in ethnic tinged improvisation and in electrified rock, and she makes her own weird kind of sense of it wherever it occurs.  This is not folk or rock or anything but a waking dream, beautiful, mysterious and frightening.

Alone in the Dark Wood


Topics: fursaxa
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