If you go down to the woods today, you’re in for a big surprise…… (Clue: not teddybears!). ØXN release Cyrm.
Release date: 27th October 2023
Label: Claddagh Records
Format: CD / Vinyl / Digital
Well, it has certainly been a bit of an old year for Lankum, their fourth opus seeing them go from strength to strengh, getting within a whisper of the Mercury Music Prize, and getting maybe more publicity than if they had. This month alone has seen them curate a cover disc for Uncut, pushing forward their hopes for modern Irish music, covering a fair few of their own side angles as well. Which is all the more surprising for not including this lot, the estimable Claddagh records first new signing for nearly two decades. This lot? ØXN are Radie Peat, singer and box player for the band, along with their producer, John ‘Spud’ Murphy, joined for the endeavour by Eleanor Myler and Katie Kim. Both are long term associates of Murphy, as part of his Guerilla Studio stable of musicians, with Myler the singer and drummer in his band, Percolator, where he plays bass. Think of a whiff of fellow Dublin band, My Bloody Valentine, added to the efficient motorik of Stereolab, and you have an idea of their sound. Kim is best known for her loop-driven lo-fi drone folk, as well as hosting, with Peat, their NTS Radio shows.
It is Peat’s clear and piercing voice that opens Cyrm, with the “cautionary tale”, Cruel Mother, which is cautionary only in the sense that it warns young maidenss that becoming pregnant outside wedlock is akin to demonic posession, brought, clearly, on yourself, so more a criminal offence than anything remotely psychological. Of course the outcome is persecution, abuse, infantilism and guilt. A couple of unaccompanied verses set the scene, ahead a few bleak electric guitar notes. Gradually a rolling and repetitive accompaniment slots in, heavy on the bass and percussion, harmony voices spooking up the ante. It is grippingly hypnotic and a momentous start, nearly ten minutes of Hammer Horror meets The Wicker Man, with the full choral onslaught in the last verse or two astonishing, as it battles the by now stampede of drums. Finally, the backing drops away, leaving an echo-drenched Peat, with Myler and Kim’s harmonies, to invoke the last few lines. All that is missing is the funeral toll of a church bell.
Mournful piano and the sound of a howling wind beckon in The Trees They Do Grow High, another cheerful ditty, this time around arranged marriage and early death. Kim takes the lead here, Peat a secondary presence behind her. Gauntly and starkly beautiful, the arrangement gradually ramps up, drawing in the rhythm section and what sounds like strings, mainly cello and bowed bass. Again the vocals become choral and it the mood is very dark, much darker, say, than other songs that offer the same story: check out Long A’Growing, another version of the same trad.arr., sad in the hands of the likes of Martin Carthy and Gigspanner. This one is positively suicidal. In a good way.
Love Henry has the first sound of Peat’s concertina. Anyone by now expecting a rollicking jig or reel may be now realising this isnt going to be that sort of record. A repeated choral ah ah ah garlands her vocal, Mylers drums pattering all around. Bass drones appear, and something wicked seems this way coming, the build relentless in a slow and imposing footprint, the vocals becoming ever more of a banshee wail. A middle section of deeply bowed strings doesn’t let up, with the song ending in a vocal shriek.
Leaving behind the tradition for a while, possibly for the listeners wellbeing, Kim reworks one of her own songs, The Feast, itself loosely based on Nick Cave’s novel, And The Ass Saw The Angel. Those already familiar with the book, or Kim’s earlier version, from her 2012 solo album, Cover And Flood, will appreciate this offers no lightening of the incumbent atmosphere at all, and is a strung out tone poem of drones and brooding. The shortest track here, at 4 and 3/4 minutes, is the band going to offer any contrast at all?
Which they do, well, to a point with The Wife Of Michael Cleary, which has a jauntier cadence to it. Slightly, but possibly don’t dwell too much on the lyric. A song by Maija Sofia, it outlines the unfortunate outcome of the wife in question, possibly finding herself to similar straits to the protagonist in Cruel Mother. For all that, it carries a tune that will linger, the military drums propelling both the song and the interest. A tinkling chime, slightly out of step, adds an attractive lustre, before synths sweep in for a near orchestral backdrop. Possibly the most instant track on an album that largely isn’t, unless dirges be your thing. (That’s me!!)
The final track, Farmer In The City, comes from the pen of the late Scott Walker, a writer with his own sense of damned and gloomy gothic, so it is a surprise to find this one of the lighter in his canon, at least in subject matter. The bass notes of synthesiser might suggest otherwise, mind, as slight hints of Sabbath’s War Pigs seep into mind for the vocal start. Actually about Pier Paolo Pasolini, the film maker, and his love, Ninetto Davoli, I had to look up the background, it best summed up, as was the whole of Pasolinni’s life, as “difficult”. A slow burn of a song, it shows a different angle to ØXN, less traditional, if equally morbid in outlook and atmosphere, the off kilter experimentalism of second half even a little daunting. Stick with it, the sequencer adding colour over the vibrating, crashing sounds of the bass and percussion, the latter flailing into a full blown frenzy. Another demonic chorus and, 12, nearly 13 minutes later, we’re done. Did I say the majority of the album was recorded at Hellfire Stusios?
An extraordinary noise, this record takes the expression of folk music as deep into the forest as you have ever dared to go, or even ever should, but is a triumph. Band name, ØXN, refers to the massive castrated bulls that took the place of workhorses in ancient Ireland, powerful beasts of burden, both worshipped and abused. Cyrm translates, amongst other meanings, as shout. Experimental doom folk is what they call the sound. They ain’t joking. Be careful out there.
Try Love Henry from ØXN for a flavour of this opus: