Led by a mysterious Utah-born troubadour named B'eirth, In Gowan Ring formed in the early '90s, featuring a rotating cast of musicians fusing elements of traditional European folk music with heavy doses of psychedelia. After appearing on a series of compilations, In Gowan Ring's debut album, Love Charms, appeared in 1994 on the World Serpent label. Three years later, The Twin Trees was released on World Serpent, an album that sounded like an updated version of the Incredible String Band
. The Glinting Spade, released in 1999 on the Bluesanct label, saw In Gowan Ring making more prominent use of drone and trance music. ~ Jason Nickey, All Music Guide"The Glinting Spade" 1999
In Gowan Ring is one of those bands that I first read about a long time ago in the Soleilmoon catalog. That was back during my "World Serpent" phase, when I was first getting to know the works of David Tibet, Douglas P, Steven Stapleton, et al. Now, listening to "The Glinting Spade" several years later, I've come to the conclusion that I don't need to be any sort of phase to enjoy this album.
Immediate comparisons to Current 93 (in their "apocalyptic folk" mode) come to mind, but In Gowan Ring is much more listenable. Granted, the two bands share a lot of musical common ground. Gently strummed acoustic guitars, odd percussion, and a sort of hazy, droning psychedelia that just hovers in the background. The most striking difference between the two groups are the vocals. Even if you think that David Tibet is a lyrical genius, you must admit that his voice is definitely an acquired taste. On the other hand, the vocals of B'eirth are downright lovely. Soft and lulling, his wispy vocals flow right along with the music. Often layered behind walls of droning, shifting sounds and gentle acoustic guitars, he sounds as if he's coming from some far-off dreamland, or from some perpetual state of half-sleeping, half-waking.
Lyrically, the album reads like some sort of bizarre waking dream. On "Two Wax Dolls", B'eirth sings "Two wax dolls, blue-yellow braided/wrapped up in scrolls, splayed into folds/with limbs two and four, face within faces/that scatter in hews of gleaming gambol". On paper, it sounds mighty awkward. But listening to it sung by B'eirth, the lyrics sound perfectly natural, as if they were the only words that could go with his voice and the music.
In Gowan Ring weaves a lovely sound throughout the album. It's psychedelic and folksy, but in all the right ways. Some of the tracks tend to go a bit too long, such as the meandering, aimless "Milk Star", but for the most part, the album is an enchanting journey. And for an album with such New Age-y titles as "In The Dream Of The Queen Bow Star", there's absolutely no such nonsense. There's a fragility throughout many of the songs, helped, no doubt, by B'eirth's gentle vocals. At times, it sounds like Nick Drake if he was found wandering around a Renaissance Fair as an astral projection ("A Bee At The Dolmen's Bell"). At other times, it sounds like The Verve if they'd been a madrigal choir.
If you're normally put off by words like "psychedelic" and "trippy", associating them with bands whose music consists of 15 minute organ solos, pseudo-mystical references, and an overwhelming need to be taken more seriously than they should be, relax. There's no such pretension on "The Glinting Spade". Even the trippiest, shroomiest sections of the album have a warmth and humanity about them. On songs such as "Two Wax Dolls" and "A Bee At The Dolmen's Bell" In Gowan Ring's music becomes truly otherworldly. ~Opus"Hazel Steps Through a Weathered Home" 2002
In Gowan Ring's B'eirth is certainly an effusive fellow. If the "fever dream by way of Austin Osman Spare" nature of his lyrics wasn't evidence enough, just wait until you see how In Gowan Ring's self-styled "Conductor" describes his own music. For some, "Hazel Steps Through A Weathered Home" will merely be a spaced out folk album of gauzy acoustic guitars, Renaissance Fair backing bands, and B'eirth's fey vocals. However, it's obviously much more to him, a "liminal lucubration of specular poetry composed within a euphonious and eclectic arrange of acoustic, archaic, and homespun instruments."
I guess that's as good a definition as any, especially given that "lucubration" means "pedantic or pretentious writing". And "pretentious" is a pretty good start to describing "Hazel Steps...". However, B'eirth pours himself so completely into his pretenses that they contain his whole heart and soul, as hinted at by "lucubration"'s other definition: "laborious study or meditation".
For me, "psychedelic folk" has all sorts of pretense, be it the seriously silly lyrics or the music, which sounds like it was written by people who sincerely wish they'd been gypsies in a previous life (or residents of Middle-Earth). But confound it all if In Gowan Ring actually takes that fairly ephemeral genre and provides it with as concrete an example as possible (even more completely, I'd argue, than movers and shakers within the genre such as Current 93). In Gowan Ring's "The Glinting Spade" is as beautiful as any psych-folk album can be without completely materializing. By it's very nature, there must be an otherworldly quality to the music, or else it ceases being, well, psychedelic.
"Hazel Steps Through A Weathered Home" lacks many of the droney, ambient elements that were so entrancing about "The Glinting Spade". As a whole, it's a more stripped down effort. However, that doesn't really diminish the album's preternatural feel. Much of that is due to B'eirth's vocals and lyrics. B'eirth's wispy voice is always barely there, as if it's made of little more than spiderwebs and moonlight.
But such a voice would be useless without equally obtuse lyrics, which In Gowan Ring has in spades. B'eirth sees no problem in singing lines like "Petals of jasmine, anemones in a water bowl float/How grace arranged the chance array come eventide's shifting glow" or "Shimmers splendent merge, laden tendrils waver/Descending drops of water disperse in lucid layer" with all due gravity. Don't be surprised if you feel like you need a refresher course on Romantic poetry before delving into B'eirth's flowery prose.
As I said before, "Hazel Steps Through A Weathered Home" is missing some of "The Glinting Spade"'s more atmospheric elements. However, that only reveals the lovely arrangements of B'eirth and his various conspirators for all to see. Acoustic guitars are eminent, plucking out delicate melodies upon melodies. But citterns, cimboloms, timbrels, flutes, and other "acoustic, archaic, and homespun instruments" all make their appearance. The songs are much starker and darker than on "The Glinting Spade", but they also have more gravity and substance.
"Hazel Steps"'s is about as solemn as the album gets, like Nick Drake on a funeral march set to a bodhran beat. Meanwhile, "The Wind That Cracks The Leaves" feels caught in a slowly constricting web, an interplay of picked acoustic guitars and a chorus of B'eirths all caught in a slow, downward spiral. The lovely thing is that despite its pretensions, or more likely because of them, that spiral can easily ensnare the unsuspecting listener in its magical folds. ~Opushttp://www.ingowanring.com/LuneMailOrderFrameset.htm