Cambridge psych-folkists Fuzzy Lights return after 8-year hiatus with tales of sacrifice, burial and miscarriage
Release Date: 2nd July 2021
Formats: CD / Vinyl / Download
Originally formed in 2004, Cambridge-based psych-folk outfit Fuzzy Lights have been away for a while. For quite a while, in fact, their new album, Burials, is their first since 2013’s Rule Of Twelfth, and it’s an intriguing piece of work. Fuzzy Lights are: Rachel Watkins on violin and vocals, Xavier Watkins on guitar and electronics, Chris Rogers on guitar, Daniel Carney on bass and Mark Blay on drums, and their sound is pretty well unique.
In their own words, the band describe their sound as: “…stripped back to its component parts, deconstructed and rebuilt under less obvious influence. There’s a bedrock of folk-rock – predecessors like Trees and Fairport Convention – which is built upon through multiple layers, from the stillness of Talk Talk to the orchestral chaos Godspeed You! Black Emperor. Burials cultivates these sounds and influences into something new and fresh that distances the album from the rest of the folk-rock crowd.”
That description goes some way towards preparing the unwary or uninitiated listener what to expect, but I think there’s more to add. Certainly the influence of Trees and other exponents of the more extreme end of British psych-folk and jazz-folk experimentation such as Comus and John Martyn are easily detectable, as are the Celtic explorations of bands such as Horslips. There’s also a touch of West Coast psychedelia in some of the tunes. What definitely isn’t on offer is any light-hearted cavorting between milkmaids and farm boys upon a May morning. These songs deal with the dark underbelly of human life ancient and modern, with miscarriage, sacrifice, mortality and pollution all getting a look in.
Rachel Watkins’ vulnerable, delicate voice contrasts massively with the band’s hard-edged, uncompromising instrumentation, and the overall effect is a sound with remarkable depth that emphasizes the vulnerability of the songs’ human subjects when exposed to the harshness of life’s realities that impact so heavily of the subjects’ destinies.
The album’s mood is solidly established with the opening track Maiden’s Call. A solid bassline, that persists throughout, provides the bedrock for distorted guitars that establish the stated intent to take the album into territory well beyond that inhabited by “the rest of the folk-rock crowd.” Meanwhile, Rachel’s lyrics dwell upon the plight of a mother who has just suffered the horror of miscarriage, with lines such as “Sink your teeth into my skin, mother’s milk here within, life and death to the fallen child, rust and dust to the maiden mild” leaving nothing whatsoever to the imagination. This is serious stuff.
Songbird pushes the sonic boundaries even further away from pastoral England – right into the heart of acid-drenched Haight-Ashbury. Rachel vocal is distant and ghostly, whilst distorted, cacophonous guitars take centre-stage – it’s a song that is intriguing and unsettling in equal measures.
Things become quieter and a lot more intimate for The Graveyard Song, Rachel’s comparison between the longevity of a churchyard’s 1,000 year-old yew tree and the transience of the graveyard’s other residents. Rachel’s deliberately audible intakes of breath between lines add to the song’s intimacy and military-style drumrolls provide an ominous edge. The song is rounded off by a frantic jig-based instrumental passage that reminds me very much of Horslips at their most improvisational.
Haraldskær Woman, is, perhaps the album’s most fascinating track. The song tells the story of the woman whose preserved body was found in a bog in Jutland, Denmark, in 1835, by workers digging for peat. Dating from around 490 BC, the woman’s body was naked, her clothes had been laid on top of her and it is speculated that she had been the subject of a ritual sacrifice. The song that tells her story is slow, clean and almost bluesy, with a beautiful, sympathetic violin solo from Rachel as its centrepiece.
Thunderous guitar, bass and drums introduce Under the Waves, mimicking the crashing surf of the song’s title. Typically, Rachel’s soft vocal contrasts with the savagery of the instrumentation and the lyrical subject – the impact that human actions continue to have upon the inhabitants of the oceans – is characterized by the refrain, “Under the waves we sink or swim.” Penultimate track Sirens (the current single – see our review here) gets off to an unsettling start with its opening lyric that references “Faces pale beneath the ground” before building to a climax in which guitars crash and wind effects surge, before an uneasy calm descends.
Things are brought to an exhilarating close with The Gathering Storm. Twangy guitar, looping bass and scattered percussion combine to emulate the storm of the song’s title before a strangely appropriate Bo Diddley rhythm provides the canvas for a storm of guitar feedback. But it’s not all tempestuous – the song and the album ends as the storm passes, and calm – and perhaps hope for the future – is restored.
Burials is a fascinating album, quite, quite different to anything else I’ve heard that uses folk-rock as its basic ingredient. If you like your roots music served with a healthy portion of experimentation and genre-blending, this is an album you’ll love.
Watch the Official video to Maiden’s Call, the album’s opening track, here: