Psychedelic wyrdness of a distant age through a prism. Darkly.
Release date: 10th February 2023
Record Label: Group Mind
Format: CD / vinyl / digital
Blink and you missed it, but this little gem actually came out last year, if only for a moment, and it sold out even before it dropped. So a wise decision has been made to give it another launch, with a few more bells and whistles. And bells and whistles it is, this being prime psych-folk territory, all something wicked this way comes, with bustles in the hedgerow. And all from the deep, dark depths of the countryside. Well, from Lewes actually, Islington on the Downs, that unfailing bastion of intellectual hippiedom, Brighton’s cooler hipster uncle.
Order Of The 12 are the brainchild of Richard Norris, an early adopter of dance music in the Grid, alongside Soft Cell-er Dave Ball, and later in lysergic berserkers, Beyond The Wizard’s Sleeve. Now he has taken a further step sideways, embracing just as much psychedelia, but now bolted into a folk-rock/jazz-folk sensibility. His partners in rhyme are Rachel Thomas, with an authentically existential voice, all smoke and cobwebs, and multi-instrumentalist, Stuart Carter, who picks up most of the stringed instruments, leaving Norris to keyboards, percussion and production. Recorded in Norris’s home studio, in the shadow of Lewes Castle’s ruins, and therefore close to fellow Lewes resident, Shirley Collins. That one, Albion Country Band and solo, a doyenne of English folk. Her presence is not lost on Norris, citing her as one of the integrals that demonstrate the importance of this location to his muse. She and, apparently, the Chief Druid, another town resident.
Things start promisingly with Against The Tide, picked guitars against a bouncy acoustic bass, all very Pentangle, with retro electric twangs to add counterpoint. Thomas’s vocal glides in, blending effortlessly with the instrumental landscape, occasional electronic FX and percussions seeping in and out, never losing or taking the focus from the rhythmic drive of the guitars and bass. A bit of trebly electric adds to the sheen of the 60s, if through a cracked window to the present. Triffic! What then sounds like bowed bass ushers in the more mantra-like Eye Of A Lens, the vocals now a gentle carol, with quietly insistent brushed drums. As with much in this oeuvre, the lyrics are hard sometimes to decipher, my hope being the mood is carried as much by the sound as the actual words. A delicate waif of a song, it slowly builds, as secondary vocals slot in, the drums now an on-off metronomic tap, the end spooking off quite disarmingly. More bowing then, more guitars interweaving, with some lovely leslied squonks, for Somewhere Nearly Gone, the desolate vocal scratching a nagging itch somewhere. A sudden realisation. Remember that wonderful album Rustin Man did with Beth Gibbons of Portishead? (‘Out of Season’, an astonishing 21 years ago!) The echoes here, both to the frailer end of Gibbon’s spectrum and to the overall pitch of the arrangements, are not dissimilar. Delightfully so.
Money Can’t Buy accentuates that feel, as multi-tracked wordless vocals usher in a plaintive love song, washed in mellotron swirls, all the more effective as the chorale returns to join the shimmery strings. “We’ve got more to throw away, than they’ve all got to give” is a line I could catch and one that sticks. As does the simply effective melody. Her vocals again a Gibbons-esque tissue for the title track, the human equvalent of the musical saw, this bridges wyrd with classic(al), with more mellotron, if it is, adding brooding shadows to the eeriness. A lullaby to soothe the paranoid.
Should this all be getting too much of a good thing, The Forest At Night then has a slight clip-clop country feel, the nuanced guitar and bass evoking Nancy and Lee. A cautionary campfire song, it is a diversion that leads back, don’t they all, to the unsettling feel of the forest at night. The more traddier arr. of The Black Knight is, clearly, a folkier beast, a Child ballad on absinthe, with some twists along the way, the tortured wail of Thomas perfect as she draws out the anguish, backing herself with spectral oohs and aahs. That bowed sound is here again, my detailed understanding learning that much of it is actually all guitar. And maybe even the strings/mellotron elsewhere?
Save Me From The Carnival is a more structured song, the theme of carnival a constant across the pagan ambience I am getting. Piano takes the rein here, as the base over which guitars strum and one, sometimes two, sometimes three Thomas’s sweetly intone the lyric, a lithe bass and congas bubbling in the undercurrent. One can’t help but feel carnival will win in the end, her plea disregarded. Wishing Well is the nearest thing here to an orthodox rock song, courtesy the forward driving drum beat, with a whisper of Fleetwood Mac in the construction, and maybe the idea that scarves may be adorned by the singer, yet with some harsher backward guitar to banish any sense of safety. Wishing Well? Be careful what you wish for…. The lingering threat inherent in these last two tracks comes finally and fully to fruition with the grand-guignol Hammer horror of Down To The Ring. Totally bonkers, from the cowbell chimes to the chanted processional instruction, “down to the ring we go .” It sounds not a choice, and more of a certainty. Oo-ee-oo.
Quite unlike much currently coming out this year, this elegant mix and match of a pre-Christian sensibility and studio calisthnics packs quite a potent punch, a potion evocative of the old ways. That is comes on green vinyl should hardly surprise. Sadly, it seems there are no current plans to bring the project to a live setting, but, as Norris says, “it would sound great in a field on a summer day“. Are the organisers of the erstwhile Lewes Folk Festival listening? It is surely time to revive this event, a balmy afternoon by the castle grounds, maybe adjacent the Peace Garden area, as used to once happen. That would be just the ticket to bring this record to life. And ever so handy for Norris, Thomas and Carter.