With its fourth album Castings (vhf records), Fern Knight weaves an uncommon sound from far-flung musical roots. Under classically trained cellist/guitarist/vocalist Margaret Ayre’s unwavering direction, this DC-Philadelphia quartet continues to gracefully color her tightly arranged, smartly produced songs with echos of 70s raga-rock à la Shanti, Sourdeline’s ancient trad-folk and old-school riffage in the vein of English progressive cult-rockers Asgard.
Juxtapositions of the arcane and modern in her music and life in Philadelphia drew Margaret to pen Castings, a song cycle exploring how the ancient divinatory art of the Tarot and the well-worn archetypes contained therein continue to flow through present day society.
The album was recorded in a Gothic mansion in the Brandywine valley in PA in a snowy part of January 2009. A perfect time and place to record an album influenced as much by metal as Medieval–the old-soul surroundings of the stone and wood-walled rooms lent themselves well to the resulting sounds captured by bandmember Jim Ayre.
Castings has a warm, analog feel, with looser and louder performances from the quartet than on their 2008 eponymous album. The group stretches out on rockier fare like “The Poisoner,” growling with fuzz, while leaving plenty of room for softer moments of beautiful clarity. There’s “jammy” moments here, but everything is expertly sized and placed. As on the self-titled record, Jesse Sparhawk’s harp and James Wolf’s violin provide the heart of the sound in many spots, a unique strategy that lets the band update the classic genre forms and styles while making them their own.
From the opening squalls of “From Zero to Infinity,” to the majestic epic “Long Dark Century,” the reflective mood of the album is cast in stone, mirrored in the starkly gorgeous artwork by Derek Moench. Lyrically, the opener chronicles the journey of the Fool to the Magician; a willingness to step blithely off the cliff of life to whatever lies ahead. The third track “Pentacles” offers a glimmer of sunlight poking through the darkness with its layers of vocal harmonies and hushed orchestration. Here, the lyrics observe the turning of life’s wheel of fortune and mysteries, and the end modulates to a gradual acceptance of fate, sung as a mantra: “Your pentacles are made of gold.” “Cups + Wands” pairs two unlikely suits and their corresponding elements, water (cups) and fire (wands), to elicit a powerful force. The album’s closer, “Crumbling Stairs,” Margaret describes this way: “I wrote it originally as a wedding song dedicated to my husband, Jim. By the time we recorded it for Castings, the lyrics seemed to take on some darker hidden meaning, but really, it started as a love song, an ode to a new path and how it would turn into one well-worn and deeply loved.”
Respecting the way in which the wheel turns from the old to the young, their cover of King Crimson’s 1969 epic doom classic “Epitaph” balances the second album side–a nod to their apocalyptic proggy ancestors and shared thematically-hewn observances of devolution of humanity. “Zero” borrows “Epitaph”’s imagery: “cracked projections of a people long gone, transfixing light breeds confusion” (from “Epitaph”’s “as I crawl a cracked and broken path” and “confusion will be my epitaph”). Trading their own cello and violin for the original’s signature mellotron, the group channels the vibe of the original while remaining in their own element.
Castings takes the previous self-titled album’s theme of a continuation of hope in the face of darkness to a deeper level of actualization. A force of hand; the cards have been cast…
-The first video, “The Poisoner,” (shot by by Derek Moench) depicts the duality of realms with narrative outdoor shots sketching the inner monologue; indoor footage shot at Thelesis Lodge.
-A piece of the Fern Knight story is told in the forthcoming book, Seasons They Change: The Story of Acid, Psych and Experimental Folk by Jeanette Leech (Jawbone Press, November 2010).
-Margaret Ayre wrote liner notes for the reissue of French 70’s prog-folk band Sourdeline’s ‘La Reine Blanche’ (long-time personal favorite), Guerssen Records (2010).
-Hi-fi RTI vinyl pressing in deluxe gatefold packaging with classic tip-on sleeve. Limited pressing.
video: Fern Knight: “The Poisoner”
distribution: revolver usa
publicity: Howlin’ Wuelf Media
–self-titled, 2008, Full-length CD, VHF Records (Fairfax Station, VA)
–Music for Witches and Alchemists, 2006, Full-length CD, VHF Records (Fairfax Station, VA)
–Music for Witches and Alchemists, 2007, Full-length LP, Eclipse Records (San Jacinto, CA)
–Blithewold, 2004, Self-released CD EP (Providence, RI)
–Seven Years of Severed Limbs,2003, Full-length CD, Normal Records (Germany)