The Mediaeval Baebe’s new album, The Huntress is themed around "female energy". A mix of the classical and traditional folk song, Michelle Drury welcomes it as a return to form for the "choir and band"
The Mediaeval Baebes are an all female vocal choral group who sing largely mediaeval lyrics, whether they are religious Latin or traditional folk songs, and also play instruments from the era like the psaltery, cittern and hurdy-gurdy. Though the group is British the Mediaeval Baebes sing songs from other areas of the world, such as the Middle East and Russia.
The Mediaeval Baebes aren’t a straightforward early music choral group. For example, one of their earlier albums Undrentide was produced by John Cale and they have often incorporated elements of Middle Eastern music in their work; furthermore, there are electric guitars on the new record. After initially appearing to be a gimmick appealing to a youth market and then gaining popularity with Goth and Wicca audiences, it is unsurprising they aren’t the most traditional act in the classical music section. As Katherine Blake, the last original baebe and musical director, says: “It’s a choir and a band”.
The Huntress, The Mediaeval Baebes’ seventh album, is a return to form after Illumination, where after over a decade the Baebes’ sound finally threatened to bland out. The Huntress is recognisably the sound of The Mediaeval Baebes, and the album as a whole is themed around “female energy” according to Katherine Blake. It also has several mini-themes which support the whole. Blake has taken on more work making The Huntress, arranging songs for female voices and co-engineering, she also mixed and produced the album this time with skilful results.
In reference to the album’s title there are two songs dedicated to the hunter-goddess Diana. ‘Dianae’ is a celebration of the pagan Goddess of the moon. The track is performed without any instrumentation with a constantly repeated refrain providing the backing to the main vocals. ‘Queen and Huntress’ uses verses by Shakespeare’s contemporary Ben Jonson about the brightness of the moon and can be read as relating to the beauty of the Goddess or the Queen. Despite the words, the harps and faintly sorrowful vocals make the track sound more like a warning than a celebration.
‘Queen and Huntress’ isn’t the only song where the sound contrasts with my reading of the lyrics. Some lyrics are understandable to the modern English ear but for the rest there are English translations in the CD booklet. In ‘Wynter Wakeneth’ dating from the Black Death the writer mourns many, feels no joy and isn’t sure how long they will survive either. The song isn’t a dirge and sounds relatively upbeat. The combination of recorders and percussion with the singing Baebes gives a sense of the world turning on regardless of what happens.
‘Wynter Wakenenth’ is part of another minor theme: death. In mediaeval times people didn’t live as long; because of that and the widespread belief in Christianity there was a focus on what happened in the afterlife. Some songs cover those who are left behind. ‘She Walks in Beauty’, about a lady in mourning, has a light folk feel with its violins and a slower strum that conveys the stately pace of a lady walking, while Sarah Kayte Foster and Katherine Blake’s vocals are similarly controlled.
‘She Moved Through the Fayre’ is simply but effectively arranged, starting initially with a single vocal and then gradually adding more voices to relate the tale of a woman revisiting a loved one after death. For the woman in ‘Under the Willow Tree’ there is no visitation and she drowns herself to join her love. Musically ‘Under the Willow Tree’ is psych-folk but with a different vocal style to what is usually used in the genre. Things are at their most mournful with an appeal to Jesus in ‘Dies Irae’; with its dour choral singing and slight echo effect it’s a flashback to the Baebes’ first album, Salva Nos.
It’s not all death and misery; there is light at the end of the tunnel with the coming of spring and love as in ‘Lenten is Come’, which is light and optimistic with a minimal, warm backing ending in hand claps. ‘Cathedral of Song’ has up-tempo drums and sticks with chanty vocals followed by quieter and prettier interludes. It’s the archetypal loud/quiet song done in a mediaeval manner. ‘The Clasp of a Lion’, an erotic song about the sexual embrace of a couple, has Middle Eastern tang with Arabian string arrangements along with Middle Eastern instruments like the oud and Blake singing in Arabic. ‘Cry of the Garb’ is a pleasant folky tune with vocals that ebb in and out like the sea, “garb” meaning “sea” in old Irish.
One of the strengths of The Huntress, and something that is probably not given much consideration in album reviews, is the running order. Good songs are good songs but like well cut clothes a well thought out track listing enhances what is already there. Given the control Blake had over the making of The Huntress this may explain the unity of tracks across the album. ‘Clasp of a Lion’ is followed by ‘Phantom’, which shares the former’s Middle Eastern sound with a goblet drum, oud and a slow gypsy violin. Intermingled with these is a plucked double bass giving a sense of foreboding. ‘Phantom’ is then followed by ‘Jennet’s Song’ in which the Middle Eastern touches are gone but the sense of foreboding is kept. The haunting ‘Jennet’s Song’ has lyrics taken from the 1621 Pendle Witch Trials transcript. The backing vocals behind Jennet’s damning testimony sound like the whisperings of suggestions or even schizophrenic thoughts in her ear. ‘Jennet’s Song’ is a less bombastic companion piece to Kate Bush’s ‘Waking the Witch’.
The Huntress is split between two CDs, one a folk side and the other classical. The classical cuts have more formally arranged choral singing while the folk side makes frequent use of acoustic guitars. ‘Care Away’ and ‘Cruel Sister’ on the folk side have the repetition of lines that would appeal to people singing in an informal group, though with the murderous subject matter of ‘Cruel Sister’ the audience might decline to join in. However both the folk and classical CDs have enough similarities to be enjoyed as a whole.
The Huntress may have minimal instrumentation but it doesn’t feel arid or empty; there is warmth and vocals are used to fill a void. Voices are used in different ways – multiple, solo and layered – to add variety and interest. Folk fans would like The Huntress; the tracks sound like what folk might have sounded like in the mediaeval era.
Image is the sleeve artwork for The Huntress The Mediaeval Baebes are shown lounging around in a dark, possibly mediaval in origin, room. A stags antlers are also featured
Video commentary: Medieaval Baebes, Veni Veni Bella. There is a five second countdown to the track starting, then the band are shown performing the track while dancing, playing instruments and wearing some very decorative floral head dresses.