~Ben Handelman, Black Metal & Brews
Lasher Keen- “The Middle Kingdom”
Last year I was fortunate enough to fall in love with Lasher Keen‘s entrancing stage show and their deliberately ambitious Mantic Poetry, Oracular Prophecy. The otherworldly and timeless sounds they captured on this album delighted my imagination upon first listen and still manage to take my mind and heart elsewhere when revisited. The band has recently completed work on another album, The Middle Kingdom, which is actually the musical accompaniment for a theatrical performance written by Lasher Keen’s endless conduit of creative energy, Dalrymple MacAlpin. How the man and band were capable of releasing two albums in less than a year and putting together a stage performance to pair with the more recent album is beyond my understanding, but the fact that this is fully formed and captivating is evidence enough of a true passion. For possibly the first time in my “career” as a writer, I feel that Dalrymple MacAlpin himself better describes the album’s influences and aspirations than I could, so before I dissect this as a piece of music, I will share the thoughts of its creator:
So, with the subject matter briefly explained (and more thoroughly summarized in the link I added to his commentary), it’s obvious that Lasher Keen’s habit of adding a slightly modern edge to important pieces of the past is alive and well here, possibly in a form that is more appealing than ever before. At fifty-two minutes in length, The Middle Kingdom is no brief run, yet the pacing of the songs makes it feel like a breeze, especially when compared to the 90 minutes of Mantic Poetry, Oracular Prophecy. With a shorter run-time and a long story to tell, just as much of the narrative is told in sound as it is in the lyrics. The album’s lush opener, “Children of the Sun,” immediately stands out, sounding both familiar and oddly modern with its heavy use of a grand piano. However, on an album ripe with ballads, the mournful and earthen nature of this instrument leads the band along, keeping the listener’s focus on the tale being spun as opposed to the cosmic reaches of prior efforts.
Another new direction this song takes is the use of a choir, which partakes in wonderfully coordinated call and response with Dalrymple MacAlpin as the narrator. It lends itself well to the heft of the music as an album and will likely translate beautifully for live performance. That’s not to say that this album wants for psychedelia or meandering stretches of stringed beauty; songs like “Castle of the Crystal Swans” are as whimsical and fantastical as anything else the band has offered up in the past, meandering through the realms of dream and waking. Another piece of note is the jolting, upbeat number “Red Eared Oxen of Unbridled Fame,” which sees inventive percussion and Dalrymple MacAlpin’ wailing voice bouncing off each other to great effect, displaying a playful nature that many other folksy bands seem to have lost somewhere along the way.
The band’s form has its components all intact, with the delightful lilt of Dalrymple MacAlpin guiding the listener’s emotions simply by the wavering of his voice, while strings and soft percussion often build an ornate tapestry beneath his voice. It often goes unnoticed at first glance, but the growing beauty becomes unavoidable at times, which is exactly how it should be. Playful jaunts are welcome here, as are mournful ballads of longing and uncertainty. It is the seamless telling of the story that makes this more than just a collection of short pieces informing the reader of the story’s skeleton. The interludes tickle the imagination and the narrator’s asides to the audience at the album’s ending bring it all together as a true homage to the oral history of such tales.
While the album could be described at greater length, I do feel it is a journey best experienced rather than dictated in a critical fashion. I would instead prefer to add a few notes about the stage show and the album’s release. The cast of the play includes the members of Lasher Keen, accompanied by Fiona Gaia as the leading role of Etain, with Sleepytime Gorilla Museum mastermind Nils Frykdahl playing the male lead of Midir. Musical accompaniment will be provided by both an adult choir as well as a children’s choir, with the aid of multi-instrumentalists Leonna Sapphire and James Word. The show sounds like it will be quite the spectacle (and the cast is much larger, I simply haven’t the space here to list each member) and will likely be recorded to DVD for those of us unable to attend a performance. In addition to this show, the band will be releasing the album on CD at these performances and vinyl pre-orders will go up shortly as well. The album itself is a journey worth taking, and features Dalrymple MacAlpin’ first piece of art to grace a Lasher Keen cover. Whether you loved the last one or felt slightly overwhelmed by its length and scope, I hope you will find yourself under their spell while listening to The Middle Kingdom.
~Ben Handelman, Black Metal & Brews
Lasher Keen- “Mantic Poetry, Oracular Prophecy”
It was only last month that I was introduced to the joyful, strange sounds of cosmic folk nomads Lasher Keen, but I’ve spent the past number of weeks mesmerized by recollections of my concert experience and their newest album, Mantic Poetry, Oracular Prophecy. With a duration of over ninety minutes, this is hardly your casual listening experience, yet I find visits with this album require neither determination nor patience. Indeed, I was shocked when I calculated the length, as after multiple listens it felt so much shorter and simpler to me. Perhaps this is one of the most telling facts of Lasher Keen’s music and presence: time and environment are displaced when listening to these captivating and otherworldly songs. If you are a fan of anything resembling psychedelic folk music, please read on. This may well be among the finest albums you’ll hear all year, and today is the day the band picks up the records to ship out.
While I was previously aware of Lasher Keen’s existence through their association with cult favorite label Pesanta Urfolk, I feel it’s fitting that this release has arrived in time to serve as my primary introduction to their music. I’ve recently lost interest in spending all day indoors and on the internet now that I live in such a beautiful region. Indeed, I’ve found my desire to be out and about is unparalleled, making the wanderlust and old world beauty conveyed in Lasher Keen’s music to be a perfect soundtrack for my state of mind. Don’t fear, I’ll still be here to write and share my commentary, but I’d much rather be out experiencing the world around me instead of reading about it on a computer screen. Similarly, Mantic Poetry, Oracular Prophecy feels like a bunch of musicians embracing nature, not so much as a means of rebellion against our busy world as it is a form of celebration and reverence towards the world itself.
In discussing the actual songs, it’s worth mentioning that there are two decidedly separate portions to this album, each serving its own important function. The album’s first eight songs occupy approximately fifty minutes, leading up to two epics span approximately twenty-three minutes each. The format allows the listener to be lured in by the mischievous and fantastical imagery of shorter (yet no less gripping) songs before embarking on two lengthy excursions into other realms. Songs like “The Quest to Question” and “Trembling Dreams” (both highlights of Lasher Keen’s live performance last month) inspire curiosity and wonder, drawing the listener away from concerns of work and responsibility and towards timeless thoughts of one’s true purpose and meaning.
Balancing the serious pondering against modernity is the joyful side of the album that encourages one to lose self-awareness and just enjoy existence, with songs like “Dancing Sounds” or “Waltz of the Jester’s Fool” that encourage merriment and imagination while still retaining a strangely psychedelic edge. It’s hard not to get lost somewhere between reverie and reflection while listening, as I find myself wishing to linger eternally in the bliss of Lasher Keen’s music. The interplay between an ever-shifting array of instruments and the versatility of Dalrymple MacAlpin Sheet’s voice or the breathy and focused delivery of lines from Bluebird Gaia verges on hypnotic at most times. If music could ever be described as seductive without being overtly sexual in nature, this would be the most fitting album to describe as such.
After nearly an hour of beauty, the album’s towering centerpiece approaches. I imagine as this is a double LP, these two final songs occupy their own separate record, but it’s pure speculation at this point. “Climbing the World Tree” is truly worthy of its own dedicated experience, as it meanders and flows as it’s own journey. From the gentle, almost playful introduction onward, there is a constant building of tension and energy. Steadily moving percussion guides the listener onward and upward as flutes and both singers’ voices dart back and forth, urging the listener to remain wholly focused and involved. The moments where the music dips and slows only allows it to swell back with increasingly vibrant beauty and vigor. Closing this album experience is the slightly more subdued “Psychotropic Cult Of The Oracular Sacrificial Severed Head,” a song that is as much a spectacle as its counterpart yet follows an entirely distinctive trajectory. Whereas “Climbing the World Tree’ is an ascension of sorts, this voyage inward explores the farthest recesses of the mind. It is primal and mighty, conjuring images of late nights and oral history around a fire. Open your imagination in whatever way you find most appropriate and listen with the lights out. This is a blissful escape, an existence away from the world we know and live in from day to day.
~Krumbled Kookie, Hammer Smashed Sound
Lasher Keen, Berserker 2xLP
This totally sneaked up on me. I love it when that happens. I had heard the Lasher Keen Possessed by the Forest Queen 10' that Pesanta put out a few years back, in the early days of the label. I liked it well enough; it is original, that much is certainly true. You don't hear an awful lot of folk music that sounds like this nowadays. But I'll admit that it's not something that finds its way to my turntable an awful lot.
The mistake is mine, and I take full responsibility for my heinous crime. I will listen to Possessed by the Forest Queen again, with more open ears, because Berserker has me completely transfixed.
As previously stated, this is folk music. Medieval, psychedelic, heathen folk music that is as dark and intense as it is joyous and exuberant. It's difficult, if not nearly impossible to find music of any genre that at once guides you to the dark side of things while affirming life itself; the last two records that did that with any degree of excellence were Giles Corey's self titled from last year, and Panopticon's On The Subject of Mortality. And if you're keeping up, you know that those are two of my all-time favorite records. I've had this album for less than 24 hours as I type this, but I can tell you that this is making its way to the top.
The rhythms and melodies on this record are so captivating that I can't stop listening. The songs that at first seem to gallop along merrily on further listen reveal a force that I can't recall ever hearing on a folk record. This is heavy, powerful music that I could blather on about for about 12 pages, but it's not going to do any good for you to just read this. This is an album that must be heard. Absolute highest recommendation.
The 2xLP features gorgeous cover artwork by Markus Wolff (of Waldteufel, L'Acephale, A Minority of One, and Hex Magazine, among other things), is presented in a gorgeous high-quality gatefold, and comes with a 30-page booklet with lyrics and art, as well as a digital download. Available on black vinyl (an edition of 393) or gold and red splatter vinyl limited to 93 (that looks rather excellent, I might add).
Lasher Keen, Berserker
I was trying to explain Lasher Keen to a friend not too long ago. It went something like, “well, they’re a little like…um, sounds kind of, mmmmm yea”. Medieval Psychedelic Folk is the bands own label and I guess that works as good as any. There’s definitely a some 16 Horsepower/Wovenhand influences, a healthy shot of Swans and a whole bunch of Heathen abandon.
My first exposure to the band was the previous 10″ also on Pesanta. I’ll admit I was so weirded out on first listen I had to take it off. I couldn’t wrap my head around it. The same can be said about a lot of bands I now count among my favorites. It’s those that are more engaging that I hold dear. I have shelves full of background noise, thanks. So maybe that initial experience paved the way the Berserker to come. This album immediately clicked with me and has been a near daily ritual since taking it out of the box.
There are so many varying styles that ever track is like getting a birthday present. Not to say that it’s chaotic or lacking in focus, but just the opposite. It’s the variation that makes it work. From Flamenco to Tangos, twangy reverb drenched Americana to Bluegrass laden Folk, medieval chamber music to psychedelic soul all wrapped up in a big seven layer burrito of fun. Yea, it’s ok to have a good time.
Led by Dalrymple MacAlpin Sheet’s Pan-like vocals (ok I’ve never heard Pan sing, but it’s what imagine it would sound like), his lovely newly-wed Bluebird Gaia, who by the way is like a little ray of sunshine wherever she goes, spot on drumming from label head Adam Collins-Torruella and multi-talented Sage Arias. Glockenspiel, banjo, etc, etc, seriously, I think that guy plays every instrument there is and a couple that haven’t been invented yet. I’ve since heard the band is now just the husband and wife duo. The lyrics are handled by Dalrymple MacAlpin and most seem based on heathen lore or nature themes and all are pure poetry. From the depths of my personal favorite track “Sun Chariot” (You belong to river, you belong to the sea. You belong to the ocean, but now you belong to me) to the silliness of “Where The Wild Insects Roam” (“Oh praying mantis, I want to kiss your insect eyelids”), they never fails to make me smile.The album itself is a thing of beauty. Featuring amazing painted artwork from one of my personal favorite heathen artists Markus Wolff as well a fantastic 30 page booklet. The LP is limited to an edition of 486, 93 on gold & red splatter vinyl and 393 on black. Take my word for it, spend the extra $5 and go for the gold & red edition, but don’t miss out either way. This is a fantastic record, a true journey in every sense of the world
TYR, Myth, Culture, Tradition, vol.4
Lasher Keen - Wither
A few years back I had the good fortune of witnessing a Lasher Keen performance at a small venue in Portland, Oregon at the behest of a long time friend. Having never heard of them and not knowing what to expect, I was taken aback by their musical prowess, humor, and the ability to create an atmosphere that was both invigorating and engaging. Naturally I was eager to acquire Wither, their newest release at that time.
Released in 2009 in a stunning digipak format by Verdandi Design (a company owned by Arrowyn Craban Lauer of Hex Magazine fame) Wither is a testament to what I heard live- raw, emotive and jagged instrumentation with dual vocals to match. The sound can be sparse at times, but it only serves to buoy the material. However, thanks to a high quality analog recording, nearly every nuance of every instrument can be heard and nothing gets buried in the mix.
And, make no mistake; there are tons of instruments on this recording including cello, tin whistle, and mandolin to name a few. Dalrymple MacAlpin’ rugged guitar playing and Sage Arias’ bass and banjo provide the framework for most of the tracks, sculpting traditional song structures into the psychedelic and avant-garde realm. Just the same, Dalrymple MacAlpin’s vocals are prescient in nearly every song, echoing that in definable juncture of the natural world and the spiritual realm that should appeal to anyone with a pantheistic or heathen worldview.
Highlights include “Dead Valley, Living Stream,” which boasts a very memorable acoustic melody and a resolve at the end which can only be described as uplifting and gratifying. One particularly compelling verse proclaims, “Wail like the wind, moan like the moon, cry like a crow. Burn like a moth, drawn to the flame, hissing a curse when the candlelight wanes.” “Animal” is the most memorable and compelling track, bolstered by Gaia’s vocal refrain and could be an anthem of sorts, given the lyric: “I’ll be a fish at the bottom of the sea, but I won’t rejoin the human race and all its wretchedry.” “Every Curse Lifted” and “Altes Vogelherz” feature some rousing bodhran.
A fitting contribution from fellow travelers Waldteufel and the great Alfred Hitchcock (guess which track) round out a unique and worthwhile listening experience for those who appreciate folk in its many guises, be it traditional, psychedelic, or even old Appalachian. Highly enjoyable!