“Is it a strange fusion that manifests and reveals itself with repeated listens? The result is the kind of weirdness that ran through the works of HP Lovecraft”: The Witching Tale’s What Magic Is This?

Katharine Blake of Mediæval Bæbes and Michael J York Coil return with a cerebrally challenging and creepy collection that rewards the effort put into listening

The Witching Tale
(Image: © The Witching Tale)

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Something strange this way comes to transport all those who encounter it to an unsettling yet oddly welcoming realm, where supernatural beings and forces dance and walk among us. 

Which shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise, knowing about the pair casting these irresistible spells. Singer Katharine Blake is the driving force behind Mediæval Bæbes and the recently resurrected Miranda Sex Garden. Multi-instrumentalist Michael J York’s own magic touch is imprinted on the music of outliers Coil, Current 93 and Téléplasmiste, as well The Utopia Strong with co-conspirators Steve Davis and Kavus Torabi.

Posing by a pair of impressive standing stones for the album’s cover, Blake and York are no longer the cowl-draped couple that adorned the artwork of their eponymous debut album. Eliciting memories of the more creepy TV programmes that inveigled their way into the nation’s living rooms – see Escape Into The Night, Timeslip and John Mills in Quatermass – the music contained across the nine tracks here transcends what’s being hinted at. 

Little wonder, then, that Blake’s lyrical inspirations are the horror and sci-fi movies that she loves so much.

But it’s not just those themes that beguile – it’s also the music. Using a wide variety of instruments including synths, bagpipes, the double-reed duduk and electric guitar, York is joined by Charlie Cawood’s lyre, gothic lap harp, zither, guzheng, taishogoto and Catherine Gerbrands’ musical saw. The result is the kind of weirdness that ran through the works of HP Lovecraft.

Almost floating like an apparition, the music – at first listen – appears to be disconnected with Blake’s concerns; but, like a séance that brings together the living and the spirits of the dead, soon fuses with her ethereal voice while somehow still standing apart from it.

Witness They Will Come, wherein Blake sings of parasitic alien invaders who can only feed on humans while they sleep. Is the music running counter to the singing? Or is it a strange fusion that manifests and reveals itself with repeated listens? Elsewhere, Born In A Moment Again is a tentative dance that shows its true fusion as a reward for working with it.

So while this isn’t physically active music, the mind is alert throughout. And the moment the psyche surrenders, all becomes clear. Most immediate is the ritual sacrifice at the heart of Within Her Flame, which runs with the baton passed on by Manuel Göttsching’s experiments with repetition.

Stick at it. What Magic Is This? is filled with an eldritch sensibility, and the rewards it delivers are commensurate with the work put in.

What Magic Is This? is available now

Julian Marszalek

Julian Marszalek is the former Reviews Editor of The Blues Magazine. He has written about music for Music365, Yahoo! Music, The Quietus, The Guardian, NME and Shindig! among many others. As the Deputy Online News Editor at Xfm he revealed exclusively that Nick Cave’s second novel was on the way. During his two-decade career, he’s interviewed the likes of Keith Richards, Jimmy Page and Ozzy Osbourne, and has been ranted at by John Lydon. He’s also in the select group of music journalists to have actually got on with Lou Reed. Marszalek taught music journalism at Middlesex University and co-ran the genre-fluid Stow Festival in Walthamstow for six years.