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Rif Mountain is an independent co-op label specialising in underground folk music. Their output includes some extremely limited homemade CDRs (we're talking about limited to 15 copies and similar numbers). This stuff is so scarce that even I don't have copies, but thankfully the label does also choose to make many of its releases more widely available. I have here a selection of CDs and vinyl from Rif Mountain, starting with the 7" single Joy to the Person of My Love/False Astronomy by Alasdair Roberts and Friends. Alasdair Roberts needs no introduction to followers of alternative folk, though this more low-key vinyl release may have escaped the attention of those without their ears pinned firmly to the ground. Here Alasdair and his collaborators provide versions of two 17th century songs, which are exclusive to this release. Joy to the Person of My Love is an anonymous Scottish piece, published in Forbes' Songs and Fancies in Aberdeen in 1682. False Astronomy is a madrigal by John Dowland, published in 1603 as part of his Third and Last Booke of Songs or Aires. These are superb renditions, minimally accompanied by acoustic guitar, flute, and whistle which provides a sound roughly approximate to the medieval recorder.

The Straw Bear Band have a 7", the Vexed Soul EP, out on the Hobby Horse Singles Club, an offshoot of Rif Mountain. Although it's called an EP, there are only two tracks, both of which are versions of songs that will be well known to anyone with an interest in traditional folk music or its late 60s/early 70s revival, although The Straw Bear Band add their own distinctive twist to the arrangements. Lyke Wake Dirge is reinvented as an American style folk-rock piece with hints of blues and psych, and an Indian style string arrangement at the end. The archaic dialect it is usually sung in is replaced with modern English. This eclecticism will no doubt infuriate purists, but those of a more forward thinking persuasion will recognise that this mixture actually works really well. Nottamun Town combines aspects of British and American folk music and sets this to a mixture of eerie and dramatic sound effects and discordant violin. This single is an excellent example of dark, at times experimental, underground folk music from a band I'm eager to hear more from.

Roshi Nasehi was born in Wales of Iranian descent. She performs her own material as well as artistic arrangements of Iranian songs learnt from her family, collaborating with electronic soundscape artist Graham Dowdall (who has also worked with Gagarin, Pere Ubu and Nico) under the name Roshi featuring Pars Radio. Following a couple of releases on the Geo label and a very beautiful vocal and piano performance on The Owl Service's The Burn Comes Down mini-album (reviewed last issue), Roshi featuring Pars Radio have released a 5 track CD EP on Rif Mountain, entitled Mehregan, after the Iranian autumn harvest festival. Three of the songs are traditional Iranian, whilst Sari Gelin is a traditional Armenian piece with Farsi lyrics by Jamsheed Arjomandi, and Jaane Maryam is written by Mohammed Noori and Caambeez Mojhhdehee. The English translations printed on the cover show that most of these are highly emotional, romantic songs containing poignant portrayals of lovesickness. To Bio (Come to Me Beloved) is a slow, sophisticated ballad, its pained, lovelorn melody matching its words. The song is accompanied by minimalistic electronica best defined as 'aural modern art'. Gol E Gandom (Wheat Flower) gives the impression of being a much more sunny, positive number, based on the melody and the brief snippet of lyrics printed on the cover. Here, multi-tracked vocals interweave with each other over sparse electronic percussion and spacey bleeps. Sari Gelin is another impassioned, mournful ballad, set to accordion and the usual minimal electronics. Jaane Maryam is an unaccompanied romantic ballad that adds some very lovely vocal harmonies part way through the song. Lor Batche is a playful song, the lyrics of which have the feel of a childrens' playground rhyme. It is faster and more lighthearted than everything else here, and its melody has more of an obvious Middle Eastern feel than the other tracks. The tune is one of those amazingly catchy ones that is impossible to dislodge from the brain. For those that recognise the title from Roshi's album The Sky and the Caspian Sea, this is a different version with much faster tempo and accompanied only by piano. I'm not aware of anyone else making music quite like Roshi and Pars Radio; their style is distinctive and possibly even unique.

Echoes from the Mountain is a compilation of cover versions of material from the archives of early 70s label Village Thing, performed by Rif Mountain bands and other like-minded artists. Original Village Thing artists Steve Tilston and Wizz Jones also put in an appearance, covering each other's songs. Village Thing's tagline, 'The Alternative Folk Label', seems to have been one of the first examples of the use of 'alternative folk' as a genre classification. Starless and Bible Black appear here with Hunt and Turner's Silver Lady, a delicate and melancholic psych-folk track with added spacey bleepage. The Owl Service's track is very different from their own material, namely a version of Time is Ripe by Ian A. Anderson, which sounds more like American style folk-rock or contemporary singer-songwriter music than the traditional British inspired folk-rock more familiar of this band. Pamela Wyn Shannon provides a version of Simplicity by Steve Tilston, a delightfully off-centre alternative folk piece that makes me interested to hear more by both artists. Wizz Jones' When I Cease To Care is performed by Stephen Cracknell, who adds a curious instrument that I can't quite put a finger on ... pretty sure it's not a toy piano or glockenspiel, but something similarly plinky-plonky. Jane Weaver performs the ominously titled Death, a traditional song previously performed by Sun Also Rises. This plaintive medieval-like melody is set to stark droning and meandering psych-folk guitar.
Jason Steel performs Dave Evans' Rosie, a song that comes across like American alt-folk set to intricate guitar work. Wizz Jones performs a version of Steve Tilston's Sometimes in this Life, an enjoyable and catchy minimalistic acoustic piece. Lemez Duo featuring Ben Mandelson perform Al Jones' The Island, accompanied by raw banjo and harmonica, plus the surprising addition of jazz trumpet. The Straw Bear Band perform a fantastic version of The Song of Wandering Aengus, a W B Yeats poem set to music by Chris Thompson. Adam Leonard performs See How the Time is Flying, a sparsely arranged singer-songwriter piece with pessimistic, slightly cynical lyrics, originally by Wizz Jones. The A-Lords and Mark Fry appear with Steve Tilston's It's Not My Place to Fail, a lushly arranged alt-folk piece with flute, harp and bouzouki. Katie Rose appears with Dave Evans' Grey Lady Morning, where soaring vocals are accompanied by a minimalistic, repetitive sitar drone. Corncrow appear with Al Jones' Road to Marazion, which combines traditional English style folk with wailing blues harmonica. Their version also incorporates the traditional dance tune Tom Bawcock's Eve. Pamela Wyn Shannon provides a superb traditional influenced piece, Love Song by Derroll Adams. Finally Steve Tilston performs Wizz Jones' Night Ferry, a jaunty guitar/harmonica-driven singer-songwriter number.
There are some very enjoyable tracks here, particularly the more overtly 'alternative' and the traditional-inspired pieces. The compilation has made me curious to explore the Village Thing back catalogue further.

Robert Sunday has a 6 song mini-album out on CDR on Rif Mountain, entitled Butterfly Hairslide. The album is a collaboration with Jo, aka Joseph Works, who adds flute, violin, bass, percussion and backing vocals to Robert's guitar and vocals. Robert Sunday's biography reveals him to be "often at odds with the modern world (he doesn't have a mobile phone, or watch television)", and his music is expectedly raw. House and Hollow is a bleak emotional outpouring, drawing from the early 70s British folk revival and the darker end of alt-country. One With the Crow has a sunnier tune (yet still manages to sound quite melancholic), and bizarre stream of consciousness lyrics, which are sung later in the song by Jo, whose vocal style sounds more trained than that of the average underground singer. Her soaring, vibrato-laden voice would sound equally at home belting out famous pop ballads. Underwater Eyes sets quirky lyrics to sparse acoustic guitar and violin. X-Ray Department is underground electric folk with a decidedly off-centre quality. Hush Feral Dog combines blues motifs with flute, coming across kind of like a rawer, more underground version of Jethro Tull. Erebus and Terror is an adaptation of the traditional song Lord Franklin, set to electric guitar and country-ish fiddle. The album brings together stark, brooding atmospheres with more lighthearted off-kilter moments in a way that is very engaging.

The A-Lords have a self-titled vinyl LP, which comprises 4 tracks from a now sold out 3" CD, and 6 previously unreleased tracks. Despite being a compilation of material recorded over 10 years, the titles of many of the songs here are decidedly 'witchy' and add a coherent theme to the album. Those with the know-how will know what these guys are getting at with titles like Skyclad in Pendle, Hopkin's Lament, and Pyewacket's Nest. Despite their use of the Wiccan term 'skyclad', it's mostly the darker strain of historical witchcraft that seems to inspire The A-Lords, as also seen in the picture of a devil banging a drum on the back cover. That said, the music itself is generally not particularly dark. Side one consists primarily of a kind of gentle instrumental folk music that often conjures up images of pastoral scenes, a feeling that is added to all the more by the fact that the tracks were recorded outdoors and often feature birdsong in the background. Clarinet, church organ, and piano add a classical influence to the music, and the overall sound has rather an experimental feel about it despite being melodic. Vocals first put in an appearance on Of Wren or Raven, a slightly off-centre underground folk piece. Side two begins with Skyclad in Pendle, an artistic experimental piece combining folk and classical elements with spacerock drones to produce a mindbending effect. The Seventh Child is an instrumental piece bringing together balalaika, dulcimer and toy piano, whilst a brook babbles away in the background. Things Near and Far combines gentle folk music with soaring classical-inspired woodwind and psychedelic effects. Pyewacket's Nest, the only other track here to include vocals, is experimental underground folk combining an ethereal, dreamlike atmosphere with more bizarre moments.

Last issue I enthused about The Owl Service's The Burn Comes Down and The View from a Hill albums, the first two parts of their planned series entitled The Pattern Under the Plough. The Owl Service have now reissued these as a double album, The Pattern Under the Plough Parts 1 & 2. Even if you already have the original CDs, this reissue is well worth having as it adds 9 bonus tracks from out of print handmade CDRs and compilations, some of which have been remixed, and some of which are full versions as opposed to the edited versions released before. As I have already reviewed the original albums in depth last issue, please see last issue's albums section for a full breakdown of the tracks. Here I will concentrate on the bonus tracks. Wake the Vaulted Echo is a laid-back instrumental with the surprising addition of a heavy rock guitar solo. By the Setting of the Sun is an extended psych-folk-rock piece with sitar, glockenspiel and chirping crickets, along with some pretty wild psychedelic guitar solos. The track is mostly instrumental, but includes some hushed/muffled vocals around 7 minutes in. The Church Grimm (full version) is a dark psych instrumental featuring doom-laden bass and droning sitar. The Stone Bequest is a brief instrumental combining folky mandolin with psyched-out electric guitar. Maverick You Are is song-based psych-rock with folky touches. Fine Horseman (version 2) is an evocative version of one of my favourite Lal Waterson compositions. Saturnalia Song is a mesmerisingly repetitive medieval-flavoured psych-folk instrumental that morphs into a noisier psych-rock number. Despite the 'song' bit in the title, there are no lyrics. Standing on the Shore (full version) is a superb traditional-inspired song written by Johnny Moynihan (Sweeney's Men), set to an early 70s folk revival style arrangement. Spring Strathspey is a beautiful, ethereal arrangement of a traditional-inspired song by Gwydion Pendderwen. Whilst the psych instrumental material is in many ways rather different from what we have come to expect from The Owl Service, the folkier bonus tracks fit in very well with the overall feel of the original albums, and their fantastic covers of Lal Waterson, Sweeney's Men and Gwydion Pendderwen tracks in particular cannot be missed.

Rif Mountain is without a doubt one of the best outlets for underground folk music around at present. For more information on the label, visit www.rifmountain.com


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Text Kim Harten, 2011.