Milkweed describe themselves as ‘slacker-trad’, a term that hints at their lo-fi approach to recording music, but not to the evident creativity that has gone into making their new album, Myths and Legends of Wales.
No, it’s not traditional music, but it will no doubt appeal to those attracted to the pagan-esque, folkloric traditions of these islands. You can imagine them going down very well, for instance, at a Blackthorn Ritualistic Folk festival, or perhaps soundtracking one of the movies that Ben Edge makes. The duo and their album might have sat very snuggly into James Hadfield’s ‘weird folk’ article, had we known about it sooner.
Very little is given away about who Milkweed actually are. Until recently, their press photographs showed their faces obscured by cartoon creations. For this release, as you’ll see in the image above, one of them has dropped the mask. What we do know is that they live and record together on a green narrowboat, moored somewhere in the British Isles, and that they appear to like things done ‘in the moment’. Myths and Legends of Wales was recorded in a day, with nothing – not even passing trains – getting in their way. While ostensibly the music of a duo, the album is a collaboration with whatever found-sounds crept into their microphones. There’s reverence for these natural occurrences, too. At one point early on in ‘The Teachings of Rhys’, the duo pause to allow a train to pass through, unaccompanied, almost as though they’ve checked the timetable and it’s meant to be there.
It’s a minimal set-up throughout: what sounds like a zither, occasionally accompanied by a locomotive, sits in the left ear; a slightly-distorted, sitar-like banjo in the right; unaffected vocals occupy the centre stage. No pre-recorded demos, no overdubs. Vocal cracks and fret buzz, all present and correct. It is what it is: a fascinating piece of esoteric art, performed for the moment it appeared in.
The songs on Myths and Legends of Wales were drawn from a book of the same title, written in 1988 by Tony Roberts. It’s the same source that provides the album’s art, and the whole package was happened upon in a Hertfordshire charity shop. It’s not clear whether the words were lifted from the page, verbatim, or have been juggled about by Milkweed, but many of the stories are recognisable to anyone with an interest in Welsh mythology and Arthurian legend. The difference here is the brevity. It’s a 23-minute exploration of eight tales, some of which whole university degree courses have been built upon.
It has moments of real beauty in the music, too. Both ‘Winifred and Caradog’ and ‘The Wild Red Men’ are meditative, hypnotic, drone-based pieces – possible descendants of the Incredible String Band – that suit the singer’s gentle, unadorned vocal style, even as they sing of hangings, a baron cut into pieces, and decapitation. And it is the darker side of folklore and mythology that Myths and Legends of Wales is ultimately attracted to. Barely a song passes without vengeance and violence staking a claim. Throughout, Milkweed remain calm. They are passive narrators, relaying these stories as if from the side of a stage – thoughtfully, unflinchingly, as the time they inhabit rolls by.
Myths and Legends of Wales comes out on September 16th. It can be purchased on cassette or digital download via the duo’s Bandcamp page.