Tara Burke, who records her medieval convent chants and caldron-side incantations as Fursaxa, is one of those artists so committed to a peculiar shtick that she practically dares you to call bullshit on it. You want to be able to laugh her off the stage when she starts swirling censers of incense and morosely intoning her inscrutable lyrics over the drone of a tricked-out chord organ, but ultimately you can’t, because (unlike Mary Timony, who also has recently flirted with benighted medievalism) she never betrays a hint of ironic self-awareness, never once permits you to think that she doesn’t regard all this mystical claptrap with anything less than complete seriousness. You never see behind the curtain to catch a glimpse of the artist’s machinations, her calculations of how it all might go over. Even her loose association with the “free folk” fad and her connections to celebrities in the indie-rock world (e.g., Thurston Moore) don’t taint her performances with pretense and scenesterism. Her commitment to her peculiar fantasy world is seamless and total, and this invariably commands an audience’s respect (if not its comprehension).
Lepidoptera, Fursaxa’s fifth full-length release, has the same sound heard on previous releases: a lo-fi concatenation of deliberately strummed acoustic guitars, tambourines, organs, a healthy dose of room tone (perhaps to evoke the leaden quiet of an empty cathedral) and Burke’s multi-tracked vocals, mixed to be indistinct and indecipherable. Her droning dirges have ancestors in the frosty harmonium-saturated madrigals of doom Nico sang on The Marble Index. Like those chansons of the damned, all Burke’s compositions (it seems inappropriate to call them songs—you won’t be whistling these tracks while you wash your car or humming them in the shower) move at a solemn, contemplative pace and feature little in the way of dynamics, chord changes, hooks or melody. Not that this is bad—it’s just not the point of this music. Some are vaguely pastoral (“Pyrcantha”, on which Burke layers her moans over the same two guitar chords strummed repeatedly) and some are downright oppressive, as is the case with the glacial, foreboding “Freedom”. Some are wordless (“Tyranny”, which features free-form fife-piping and some primitive pounding on what sounds like a tabla); others sound like field recordings of Wiccans casting spells (“Purple Fantasy”, “Una de Gato”). All seem to aspire to function as aural mandalas—dense, interweaving patterns of sound to beguile the rational mind and facilitate meditation.
Though Burke’s typically labeled as folk (that’s the way this album came up on iTunes, anyway), it seems absurd to call something that aspires to the monolithic solemnity of institutional church music “folky.” (Note: musicians using acoustic guitars are not automatically folk musicians.) Anti-folk would make much more sense, as Fursaxa repudiates such traditional folk goals as unifying groups and giving voice to their common bond, or providing easily accessible music for celebrations, or setting popular legends to a memorable melody. Burke has much more in common with the meticulously obsessive painters and installation artists in the recent Whitney Biennial than with, say, Joan Baez or Sandy Denny. As with microscopically detailed drawings, Fursaxa’s works confront you with an ornately elaborated but ultimately private universe of insular symbols, a forbidding place you can admire for the thoroughness with which it has been imagined, but not somewhere you can imagine yourself. As mesmerizing as Burke’s music can be, it never succeeds in allowing you to merge with it; it never serves, in the tried-and-true pop tradition, as a means for you to dramatize and recapitulate your own concerns. Instead, you are thrown back on yourself as detached observer and non-participant, a faithless anthropologist left unblessed by an alien tribe’s holy rituals.