The orchestral opening to Sol Invictus’ latest Necropolis is deceiving; the album as a whole is about minimalism, exuding dark confidence without the need for overwhelming aural backdrops.
The dark folk, neofolk genre – which Sol Invictus helped to pioneer in the ’80s – has always struggled to define itself. Is it
really about pagan heathenism? Aimless nostalgia for the days of yore? Reviving old folk traditions or redefining and reworking them for an ever-shifting, rapidly changing modern global project? Is it about loss, rediscovery, or resistance? Does the genre’s unique contribution lie in its musicological excavation and proud embrace of nearly-lost musical and oral traditions, or does it lie in its dark twist on innocent folk strains to make poignant and incisive statements about today’s world?
A bit of all the above, perhaps, and the amorphous boundaries of the genre helps fuel its creative edge. Between fending off proper concerns about the ease with which some of the genre’s proponents dip into nativism or worse, and the struggle to contrast the style with its tamer mainstream folk counterparts, the genre’s innovative contributions are often sadly overlooked.
Innovation, simplicity, and confidence are the overarching characteristics of
Necropolis. The album marks the beginning of the fourth decade of Sol Invictus’ career, but there’s nothing tired here. If anything the sound is stronger, clearer, more powerful and confident than many of their albums from the ’80s and ’90s. Tony Wakeford’s (the founding and only consistent member of the group) voice is strident and clear; none of the hoarse gravelly rasping or discordant, slightly off-key singing that characterized some of the previous, admittedly classic Sol Invictus albums (Death of the West, for instance). Instrumentation too is sparse and minimal, but more beautifully presented.
Simplicity is perhaps the wrong word: there’s a complexity here that’s only possible when the number of instruments is pared down; a complicated dance between vocals and instruments that expresses itself in rhythm, layering and patterns rather than the full-on instrumental aural assault which younger neo-folk bands sometimes succumb to (just because a group has researched and built a dozen traditional instruments that they’re proud to show off, is no reason to play them all at the same time). Rather than a clashing crescendo of different instruments, music here is provided by fewer and more carefully selected instruments, ones deliberately chosen for their individual qualities and centred in a way that complements each individual piece perfectly: here a flute piping spiritedly away; there a simple, light-hearted picking of a guitar; next a light and ethereal strumming of a harp. There are moments when an instrumental crescendo erupts, but they build up appropriately and harmoniously; smoothly sweeping the listener along.
Sol Invictus are confident and clear in purpose, and it’s reflected by the confident and determined nature of the songs on this release. Wakeford’s voice is more beautiful than ever: strident on quicker folk tunes; piercing with emotional poignancy on ballad-like laments; bursting with beautiful, barely modulated feeling. Sol Invictus is not trying to prove anything here; they know what they’re capable of and engage in their beautiful musical storytelling without the slightest inhibition or hesitation; they neither overcompensate nor sell themselves short.
“Serpentine” is a whimsical example, a jaunty duet of strumming and piano-picking; a light tone of humour in Wakeford’s voice. It’s followed by “Stillborn Summer,” opening with its own whimsical rendition of “London Bridge Is Falling Down”, eventually building into a gorgeously complex piece: beautiful female-vocalized spoken word layered around Wakeford’s singsong chanting. All the while simple guitars and a light percussive beat accompany the two vocal tracks, which in turn alternate and vie with each other for supremacy.
A short, mysteriously menacing musical bridge blooms into Wakeford’s powerful voice enunciating “Brick Lane,” which then fades into ghostly whispers out of which the gentle and more typical folk song “Turn Turn Turn” (the sampled chorus echoing eerily between Wakeford’s verses) finally emerges. And the album flows on. It evokes that ethereal and mysterious ambience which neofolk bands almost certainly aspire towards: of a timeless world whose powers and truths are always partially hidden, of submerged depths whose tips we can only grasp at, whose lessons always remain evasive and elusive.
The album is a concept piece; longer songs linked together by shorter pieces and instrumental bridges. Wakeford has described the album as “a record based on and brought forth from London, and the serpent Thames that snakes its way through its heart”, and the album succeeds as a musical expression of this theme: songs flowing into each other, aided by the short and light bridging pieces; the ebb and flow of a symbolic tide reiterated with the occasionally sampled lapping of waves. The album presents the river Thames – symbolic of London itself – snaking its path not just through the city but through its history; the album’s musical flow interspersed on the one hand with ancient nursery rhymes and whimsical little poems; on the other with lightly spoken or sung laments for the confusion and alienation of the modern world.
If the nursery rhymes signify innocent childhood and youth, and if Wakeford’s strong and confident voice signifies maturity, the ethereal and abstract poetry, ghostly whispers, sampled narration and spoken word segments signify our discordant and unclear future. It’s a brilliant concept piece, as enjoyable metaphorically as it is musically.
Necropolis is also inspired by the old London Necropolis railway line, a no-longer-functioning branch of the London railway that serviced cemeteries on the then-outskirts of the growing Victorian-era city (it finally shut down for good after World War II). That metaphor works as well. It’s a fitting choice of metaphors for a neofolk album: either the mechanical beast snaking its way from the living heart of London to the gates of death at its distant edges; or the river Thames, a natural and timeless spirit flowing through the many ages and angles of a now-ancient city.
Whichever metaphor one chooses, the themes remain the same: flow and motion across time and space, from childhood to old age, from certainty to uncertainty, from darkness to light and back to darkness again. The overarching themes of timeless flow and motion are beautifully presented in an album that is among Sol Invictus’ best.