Rachel Newton & Lauren MacColl – Heal & Harrow: Album Review

Heal & Harrow – hypnotically ethereal mood music, haunting songs and spoken word, conjured up by the fear of witches.

Released: 4th February 2022

Label: Shadow

Format: CD / Download (Bandcamp)

Men have shown their fear and misunderstanding of women in many ways, especially in that hinterland that occupies the mysterious reality beyond mere old wives’ tales, to where eggs are known how and when to be sucked. And that fear has always begotten a response. It still does, the many and varied faces of misogyny witnessed, recorded and reported daily. In 16th and 17th century Scotland, the threat was writ large, as fear became paranoia, with nearly 3000 individuals, largely women, executed for being witches, dwarfing by far the more famous Salem Witch Trials of 17th century Massachusetts.

This project, by harpist Rachel Newton (The Shee, Spell Songs) and fiddle player Lauren MacColl (Salt House) is to commemorate and delineate their lives, blending factual elements with fictional narratives and from folklore, these brought together by writer Mairi Kidd, specially commissioned by the duo to tell these tales.

Blending new music and traditional melodies, the recording contains ten vignettes, mixing song and speech to convey the stories of, in the main, real beings of flesh and blood, often with a historical basis, with two more mythological entities drawing attention, as additional contrast. A detailed booklet comes with the disc, with Kidd offering both an explanatory foreword, and a breakdown of each track in turn. A tour will shortly follow this release, including also the visuals of Alison Piper, making for an immersive exposure to this period of Scottish history wherein to be noticed and to be different became enough to be a crime. The Scottish Witchcraft Act remained on the statute books between 1563 and 1735, when it was repealed.

The first witch is Lilias. Her true story ushered in by an eerie spattering drone of mournful fiddle then framing the mood ahead of shards of tinkling harp, like icy ripples on a barely thawed millpond. Newton’s ghostly voice now enters, a fragility tempered with a steely resolve. With piano and violin sharing the tune, the harp adds bleak counterpoint, nuanced electronica adding further atmospheres of mist and spray. Isobel follows, the true tale of Isobel Gowdie, with the organic pluck of the harp embedding some brief narrative, with mellow viola adding backdrop, before further speech, an impassive depiction of her confession. It takes a special voice to make speech work in a musical setting, the trick being to allow the sound to be just that, and not to act it out or declaim, which breaks the bond with the music. MacColl has such a voice, as she makes the case: “How can they have expected you to understand the world should have no magic in it? ” An Teine then commemorates the brutal murder of another woman, a full ten years after the act was repealed, a delicate air enjoining the featherlight vocal of Newton, partly in Gaelic, with the subtle and gentle instrumentation belying the horror of the case. An Teine translates as the fire…

A change in momentum is provided by Da Dim, an edgy agitation of fiddle, with chiming keyboards and harp in a prolonged introduction. Icy double-tracked singing takes up the story, a sense of foreboding creeping in, the strings cascading as a synthesiser mutters in the background. Classy, and preparing the ground for the simpler majesty of Behind The Eyes. A near instrumental piece, the first half is the spare beauty of the harp, fiddle taking up the gauntlet until a short sentence draws on the poignancy of the piece, which is a reflection of when poacher turns gamekeeper, the frying pan may be less inviting than the fire it has been replaced by. It is sad in mood, rather than accusatory. Corp-Creadha, or Figure Of Clay is fully instrumental, a layered cantering air, with shimmering electronica under the competing directions of the strings, plucked and bowed, before they conjoin toward the conclusion.

Judge Not takes an entirely different approach, with delicious bubbles of synth acting as percussion for the pizzicato strings, Newton’s buoyant vocal picking up the tale of a cross-dressing witch pricker: “I had a job to do….” Witch pricking being the important task of finding the witches mark, inserting a pin into the flesh, to find that area of anaesthesia, which doesn’t bleed, a true sign of witchery, and open, of course, to all manner of deceit. Disguised as a man, Christine Caldwell had much success in this role, ahead of herself being imprisoned. This confident and vibrant song is followed by the unaccompanied Gaelic of Mhairi, a lament for a Mary McLeod, a onetime nurse at Sky’s Dunvegan, some haunting violin drones later adding to the atmosphere. Based, in part, on the work of 17th-century female bard, Màiri nighean Alasdair Ruaidh, also a Mary McLeod and possibly the same woman. Here Newton’s voice is as pure as the simple melody.

Cutty Sark commemorates neither the boat nor the whisky and contains some of the words of Robert Burns’ Tam O’Shanter, a disingenuously misogynistic perpetuation of the crimes of women, aka causing the things they make men do. A cutty sark, who knew, is a short nightdress, calling to mind the words of judges as they castigate the victims of rape and assault for bringing it on themselves. Built on a base of lively kalimba, a modern variant of the mbira, the Zimbabwean thumb harp, the harp and fiddles dance over that bedrock, before the spectral and slightly distorted extract from the poem wafts across the top, like a storm cloud. Should all of this be sounding worthy and woke, and, I guess, it is, the last track, Eachlair deliberately bucks that, as an evocative representation of the faerie form, eachlair urlair being a malevolent and magical entity, drawn from legend, quite apart from the other tracks that portray some of the victims of those who chose to believe in, and fear, such a spirit. A mischievous song, the last laugh being a sort of what if, allied to a brooding soundscape of mist and shadows. Altogether a wonderful endplate for this fine and thoughtful recording.

Here is a lengthier explanation about the background and the making of the project:

Heal & Harrow online: website / Facebook / Twitter / Instagram

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