Review: Stone Breath - Spear of Flame, Horse of Air (2013)


artist: Stone Breath
release: Spear of Flame, Horse of Air
format: LP
year of release: 2013
label: Brave Mys­ter­ies
dur­a­tion: 37:05

detailed info: dis​cogs​.com

It’s been really good to see Stone Breath back on the scene the past few years. Last year’s Twist of Thorn tape wasn’t without a few flaws, but it was full of the unique charm and unas­sum­ing folk style that Timothy Ren­ner has been hon­ing for roughly two dec­ades. It also marked the debut of the band on the Brave Mys­ter­ies label, a rap­idly rising star among Amer­ican under­ground labels that return­ing read­ers should be very famil­iar with now. Spear of Flame, Horse of Air sees Stone Breath com­ing to LP for that same label and will serve as the band’s call­ing card for the near future.

And yes, it does a very good job of it, even though it marks a tiny bit of a new dir­ec­tion for the band, in the sense that the album is heav­ily focused on tra­di­tional bal­lads like “Crazy Man Michael” and “Tom of Bed­lam”. The style is unmis­tak­ably Stone Breath, with a com­bin­a­tion of male and female voice bring­ing both con­trast and har­mony to the lyr­ics, and a vari­ety of gui­tars, ban­jos, and other strung instru­ments as main back­ing. While there is room for some instru­mental exper­i­ment and even soling—such as at the end of “The Unquiet Grave”—the emphasis is on tra­di­tional song.

On the one hand, that’s a pity, as Ren­ner has proven to be cap­able of extraordin­ary drone-folk works, par­tic­u­larly on the dark album The Sil­ver Skein Unwound ten years ago. Then again, the cur­rent approach leaves a bit more open­ness to the sound, and gives room to gems like “Mad Song”, a piece with gor­geous gui­tar and harp work, along with the soft and cloudy female vocals. The three cent­ral tracks of the album are very serene any­way, a sim­ple neo­folk style, con­tem­plat­ive, and not really in need of the psych edge that tinged much of Stone Breath’s early work.

The intens­ity is ramped up for the final two Bed­lam tracks, how­ever, which defin­it­ively under­line the theme of mad­ness that ties the album together. Ten ten-minute rendi­tion of “Tom of Bedlam’s Song” is lovely, catch­ing a good rhythm and allow­ing a bit of time to the exper­i­ment­a­tion that is less present in the rest of the album. The basis of the song is the 17th cen­tury lyr­ics and the tune writ­ten by Nic Jones in the sixties—well-known from the Stee­leye Span ver­sion of the song—but its center is host to a great caco­phony of voices illus­trat­ing the con­cept of lun­acy: “I see the moon, and the moon sees me.” This inter­lude done with, the track con­tin­ues with the rest of the excit­ing verses of this bal­lad (see here and here for some his­tory and lyr­ics), which relates the mad ram­blings and dark fantas­ies of Tom, a sup­posed inmate of Bed­lam asylum.

Part of me had expec­ted Stone Breath’s first LP on a diverse and often avant-garde label like Brave Mys­ter­ies to be way more ‘out there’, but I now real­ise that they might just have signed the band for their ori­ginal essence: folk music with that per­fect bal­ance between tra­di­tion and innov­a­tion. It’s on dis­play here for all, and proves once more that Stone Breath is one of the most import­ant artists in the his­tory of altern­at­ive folk in the US. Bless them.

Reviewed by O.S.

Track­list:

1. Crazy Man Michael (5:08)
2. The False Lady (4:10)
3. The Unquiet Grave (5:04)
4. Mad Song (4:43)

5. How Should I Your True Love Know? (2:48)
6. A Maid In Bed­lam (4:22)
7. Tom Of Bedlam’s Song (10:49)