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Review: Riddle Songs by Stef Conner

October 24, 2020

There’s always been a medieval and folk music influence in our own label’s releases although often neglected for long periods. Recently, we’ve been exploring a little of that again, particularly the “Viking” sounds made popular by such artists as Wardruna and Eldrim.

Old English
I first heard Old English in a track released in 1982 by a gospel progressive rock band called ArkAngel, Praises in the Old Tongue. Couldn’t figure out what language it was until digging deeper revealed it was Old English and was the oldest recorded poem in the English language, Caedmon’s Hymn.

Which brings me to this new release by Stef Conner. Some of you will know her from her work with Northumbrian folk band, The Unthanks.

Riddle Songs
Riddle Songs is a collection of songs in Old English, despite no songs in Old English having survived from the period in which the language was originally used. This is a is a concept album in a time when such things aren’t fashionable. The tracks explore concepts from Anglo Saxon culture: hymns, spells, mythology and riddles. Conner accompanies herself on a strummed lyre for some tunes and is joined on harp by early music specialist Hanna Marti for some. There are tracks featuring Conner alone
and some with a choral backing from the Everlasting Voices.

The album
There are a generous 20 tracks, although some are short “rune poems”, with a total playing time of just over an hour. There are copious notes on the music (one of many reasons I still like CDs with booklets). Old English lyrics and modern English translations are provided. It was interesting to me to hear Conner’s take on Caedmon’s Hymn, very different melodically and musically from the version mentioned above, as expected, but also with subtle differences in pronunciation of the language.

What does it sound like?
Too many album review don’t actually tell you what the music sounds like. If you’ve heard recordings of monks singing plainchant in echoing spaces, this is a little reminiscent of that but the individual voices here are clearer, the reverb not so overwhelming on the choral pieces. Tracks with Conner and her strummed lyre only are more intimate.

This is a good chill-out album; you can allow it to wash past you or you can listen in detail. There is much to focus on in terms of harmony and texture and skilled arrangement.

In short, a beautiful and well crafted collection of unique tracks, well worth acquiring. I’ve written this review from a downloadable press pack version but I’m ordering the CD – one to keep! Oh, and here’s a tune!

Release date: 23 October 2020

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