First released in 2013 as a limited-run cassette of just 30 copies, Ornithology has been expanded and refurbished for glorious double vinyl as part of the Folklore Tapes Archival Reissue series. Fluttering out into the world at the end of last year, this upcycled package offers a welcome revisitation of dark avian power, with Mary Arches’ creepy audio collages given a fresh perspective by three new guitar pieces from haunted-string specialist Dean McPhee. Originally, Arches was backed by an 18-minute track by from Children of Alice (aka James Cargill and Roj Stevens from Broadcast, in league with Ghost Box’s Julian House), but with the latter holding onto their contribution for their own album, McPhee’s artful, restrained slices of uncanny pastoral fill the gap perfectly.
Folklore Tapes veterans will be glad to hear that Arches’ two-part The White Bird of the Oxenhams still hits the spot, its cacophony of ice-cream van jangles, grandfather clock chimes and echoey footsteps jostling with all manner of broken-spool whines, fuzzy chirrups and field-trapped sounds. Imagine one of those wonderful Stuart Chalmers tape constructions hewn together after a Sapphire and Steel binge in the local wildlife centre, or Danny, the Champion of the World rewired as rustic-punk plunderphonic meltdown. These tracks create a claustrophobic soundscape of countryside as prison, where tradition is something to be confronted rather than embraced, and poverty, vested interests and suspicion lock communities into decades of paralysis. A Village Green Eradication Society, perhaps.
McPhee’s interventions, meanwhile, are particularly well-judged, given that the musty retrophilia characterizing parts of the hauntology archipelago became as stale as a mouldy test card a while back. There’s only so many public information films and Ghost Box record sleeves one can digest before sheer cheese overload sets in, after all. McPhee’s unhurried meditations place careful guitar motifs – Fripp-style e-bow drones, crepuscular volume pedal shimmers and spider web-delicate fingerpicked figures – alongside crystal clear renderings of robin, nightingale and blackbird songs to create a set of hallucinatory visions. His playing on The Nightingale, in particular, is as effective as any of the hazy high-points on 2015’s exemplary Fatima’s Hand, the smooth fade-ins giving his long, sustained tones an almost electronic quality that complements the lush maximalism of the trills and whistles punctuating them. It’s a kind of rural sci-fi, in fact. Sure, the steady plucks of The Blackbird evoke ancient tales and lore in fine psych-folk style. But the wide-open, utopian vibes radiating from McPhee’s tracks look forward as well as back, sketching out alternative visions of a countryside paradise, a landscape untouched by Anthropocene ravages or terraformed back to its prelapsarian state. The result is a future Wessex imagined by Iain M. Banks, with Tippi Hedren as the gatekeeper for our post-scarcity agrarian idyll.