Their musical interests reside in our own time and the beginning of time and all points between. They bind the ancient and modern with echoing threads of the human condition. They channel folk, but not out of woolly jumpered whimsy but to summon ancestral spirits, understand through the myths, rituals and songs of old the eternal, unbending truths of love, death and nature. They explore further the complex weave of these elements through the prisms of contemporary, open-ended genres like electronica, post rock and metal, to create a very physical ambience.
Death in particular is a theme of their latest album, A Quiet Ritual. It seeks to process the shock and grief of bereavement, its aftermath, as well as casting back across history and other cultures for their own metaphors and coping strategies.
Recorded in a castle in Wiltshire and two years in the making, A Quiet Ritual is written for an ensemble of classical and modern instruments including the carnyx, an Iron Age Celtic boar-headed horn excavated from a bog in Deskford, Scotland. This mix of instruments is indicative of the theme of timelessness common to this album and their previous work. For the carnyx, they enlisted the services of John Kenny, one of just a few musicians able to play the instrument and the first to do so in modern times.
“The carnyx seems to have been used as a ritual instrument,” they explain. “Other examples have been found to be stabbed with a stake as some kind of offering. Its sound really evoked something within us. It has an enormous range and we’ve used it, with all its colours throughout the album.”
The carnyx is put to immediate use on the multiple, mammoth blasts of opener ‘Keening’, whose plaintiveness reminds of Robert Wyatt’s Rock Bottom. It’s as if ancient souls are being disinterred and unmuted to cry out in chorus; we once were. ‘Rip’ follows, more shocking and visceral, conveying the violence of grief in its suddenness and cruelty. “Horizon” conjures a hostile musical landscape of thorns and brambles, its harsh, sloping rhythms and strings conveying a prospect that’s strangely enticing in its promise of peace through oblivion, an enticement it takes every last ounce of strength to resist.
‘Spinners’ picks up the nautical theme that runs through Snow Ghost’s work, not least their previous album, A Wrecking. Combing the mythology of the figures in Norse mythology who spun the fate of humanity and the old sailor’s tale that if you light your cigarette from a candle, then a sailor will die at sea. The drones convey the dark, slowly lapping presence of the sea, calm and deathly. There’s a sense of circular motion too about ‘Threnody’, its rotating movements reflecting the cycle of life, ever renewing, ever dying, as represented by the cherry blossom, a symbol not of springtime but of death.
Electronics flutter through ‘Surrender’, a raging protest against those with a morbid interest in tragedy and those afflicted by it, a sentiment intensified on ‘Tear Your Eyes’. Finally, ‘Wraith’ and ‘Silence’, the latter an allusion to WB Yeats’ ‘He Wishes For The Cloths Of Heaven’ sees our protagonist still in mourning, “broken but not dead”. For despite the musical evocations of the nature as red in tooth and claw and magnificently indifferent to human suffering, throughout this album Cartwright’s vocals provide an irradiating warmth and lucidity that fights against desolation - a desire to live and to love. Wrought out of genuine anguish, A Quiet Ritual is Snow Ghost’s most indomitable, beautiful and compelling album to date.