Saturday, November 19, 2016

Into the Green - Joshua Burnell

Like many readers of a certain age, much of my discovery of the fantastic in literature came about through the paperbacks in the Pan Ballantine Adult Fantasy series edited by Lin Carter. The cover designs alone were alluring, with their gallery of dragons, unicorns, castles, winged things, and occult territory. But they also brought back into print a vast range of vintage Victorian and Edwardian books from the stranger regions of the imagination. Favourites were David Lindsay's A Voyage to Arcturus, the Lord Dunsany collection At the Edge of the World, E R Eddison's A Fish Dinner in Memison and his other magnificent epics, and Hope Mirlees' Lud-in-a-Mist.

The aural equivalent of these rich and elaborate volumes was to be found in progressive rock albums, usually with equally fantastical artwork, and titles that echoed those classics in the Carter series. These records had songs as long and convoluted as sagas, words that echoed with images from folk and fairy tales, and sometimes peculiar instruments, or instruments played peculiarly. There was, of course, a further-out borderland in this field, represented by such eccentric groups as Comus, Dr Strangely Strange, the medievalist group Gryphon, and Titus Groan, whose album included a twelve-minute track, 'Hall of Bright Carvings', and a love song to the title character's sister, Fuschia. (There was, indeed, also another band called Fuschia, violin-driven).

There's no getting away from the fact that progressive rock eventually became highly unfashionable, and has never perhaps altogether recovered. No doubt some of it was a bit self-indulgent and portentous. But I can't deny that there are times when, in-between other tastes in music, I like to return to it. Imagine my delight, therefore, when, calling in at the characterful and discerningly-selected record shop The Inkwell in York, I came upon an album bearing a sticker announcing it as, and I quote, 'Tolkien Inspired Progressive Folk!' Well, I mean, who could resist? Moreover, the owner threw in a few other enticing reference points: Fairport Convention, Jethro Tull.

The album was Into the Green by Joshua Burnell and it certainly lived up to the description on the label. After six mostly folk-tinged opening tracks comes an eight song suite with splendid melodies and wonderfully woven instrumental textures from flute, violin, Hammond organ and acoustic guitar. The theme is an ancient one: the mortal who strays into the halls of magic, in this case a shepherd boy whose flocks are stolen by the acolytes of the Gremlin King. Into the enchanted wood, into a deep pool, into a misted valley, and finally into the caverns of the ogre king himself the hero must go.

I found it utterly entrancing, with all the grim ritual of an ancient folk story or Dark Age saga. It must be very tempting to let in a flicker of irony to a work such as this, but I particularly like the way it is written and performed sombrely and authentically. If you are still, secretly or confessedly, fond of high fantasy, faery tales or the full flourish of progressive rock, then I certainly recommend this fine album.

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