Enjoying Tradfolk? Click here to find out how you can support us
Burd Ellen performing live.
Photo credit: Alec Bowman Clark

Burd Ellen, A Tarot of the Green Wood – a review

With their latest album, A Tarot of the Green Wood, Burd Ellen cement their position as the finest purveyors of drone folk on the scene.

The cover art for A Tarot of the Green Wood by Burd Ellen.
Release Date
31 October 2022
Burd Ellen, A Tarot of the Green Wood
A dark, immense album from the country's finest drone folkists, sure to please anyone attracted to the pagan, ethereal elements of the UK folk scene at present. Released, quite suitably, on Halloween, when the veil begins to thin.

This unearthly collection of traditional and old songs, released on Debbie Armour’s all-new Mavis Recordings, may not be as accessible as their previous album, Says the Never Beyond, but accessibility is not the point with an album like this. You don’t release a concept album featuring ancient ballads, sometimes nine minutes in length, with the tarot as your jumping-off point and spaced-out drones as your palate and aim for the top of the hit parade. This album is meant for the heads.

If weird folk is your thing, A Tarot of the Green Wood will lead you on a very pleasing exploration. Indeed, it has been a good year for exploring the darker, less visited hinterlands of traditional music. Put Burd Ellen on a bill with Shovel Dance Collective, Jacken Elswyth, Jim Ghedi and Elspeth Anne and you’d have an impressive representation, not to mention a crazy night out. This is not folk music as a pretty, rustic celebration of frolicking girls and prancing boys. This is folk music to soundtrack a creeping sense of unease; a journey into a shadowy, liminal world. Folk music for these uncertain times, perhaps? Possibly so. If the end really is nigh, then A Tarot of the Green Wood certainly sounds like a warning shot.

Few songs on the album are what you might call an easy listen. The opening track, ‘The Fool’ [Roud 3396] may have the familiar, childlike refrain of “over the hills and far away” and the occasional, distracted tum-ti-tum, but it is delivered over a grinding, industrial drone that springs from nowhere – a thorny juxtaposition lying in wait. This is entirely in keeping with the lyrical content, of course, which explores our warlike tendencies, camouflaged by a merry tune with a jaunty refrain.

‘The High Priestess & The Hierophant’ [Roud 42] (heard here as the album version of a previously released single) follows in a similar drone-ladened vein, the forboding only giving way when ‘The Lovers’ arrives, accompanied by what sounds like heavy drips of condensation falling from the roof of a cave. However, the relief is temporary. Armour leads us further into the darkness and we’re assailed by the kind of prog synth sounds most commonly associated with the mid-70s. It’s a dark dream we find ourselves struggling in, with only Armour’s unsettling, hypnotic intonation to hold onto. The pool of calm she finally ushers us into turns out to be no less disquieting. Yes, there’s sunlight, but we’re only able to see the flaying at the centre of the narrative more clearly. It’s intense stuff. It’s quite brilliant.

The intense, dreamlike state continues with ‘The Chariot’, on which Armour’s vocal flutters on the edge of an expanse of overwhelming sound; on the edge of death. The lyrics are hard to pick out, but it’s a variant on ‘The Unfortunate Lad’ [Roud 2] – “I am a poor soldier that’s never done wrong” – and it’s the aural equivalent of floating into the void. If you tend to think of drone folk as something minimal that leans heavily on a shruti box, allow ‘The Chariot’ to open your mind. This is drone folk with the drone taking centre, front, back and all sides of the stage at once. It’s like they took the opening moments of Pink Floyd’s ‘Shine on You Crazy Diamond’ and multpiled them a thousand times over. It is, quite simply, immense. That Lankum’s Ian Lynch plays pipes in there… somewhere… and becomes part of the sheer expanse gives you some idea of what to expect.

The shapenote song, ‘Death’, and Alasdair Roberts’ ‘Under no Enchantment (The Star and the Moon)’ change the textual landscape a little, the first of the two presented as a strikingly brief choral piece featuring the harmonies of Armour, Gayle Brogan and Mark Wardlaw. The second initially offers more chord movement than the rest of the album, which has the profound effect of stirring you from your hypnosis, as though your eyes are suddenly experiencing lush shades of green for the first time. It begins with a gentle, moving arrangement that showcases the beauty of Armour’s voice, and it appears to close the album out with a sense of relief. But three minutes on and the bad trip kicks in once more. Double-tracked vocals slice out of a fresh darkness, and we find ourselves being pulled in and out of the abyss as the album closes.

A Tarot of the Green Wood is an album of vast imagination and cinematic sound – and, in a folk landscape where the pagan and the ethereal have once again found a foothold, it feels like it has arrived at the right time. That it is being released on Halloween should come as no surprise. This is music for those tenebrous days when the veil begins to thin.

A Tarot of the Green Wood is released on Mavis Recordings on October 31st, 2022. It can be ordered from the artists’ Bandcamp page.