There is a tradition of English (and Scandinavian) balladry going back centuries dealing with the "murder ballad," a mournful, if morbid, genre with themes involving the homicide of father by son, sister by brother, the lover by the paramour, and so on. There are also modern revisions and new pieces, as well, including a well-received 1996 album called Murder Ballads by Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds.
Lesser known, but intensely fascinating, is the trilogy of recordings by Mick Harris, former drummer of grindcore pioneers Napalm Death and the main figure behind the electronic acts Scorn and Lull, which have been featured here, and Martyn Bates, best known as half of the duo, Eyeless in Gaza. Harris has also engaged in a number of collaborations with such figures as Bill Laswell, Eraldo Bernocchi, Neil Harvey and James Plotkin that run the gamut from high-energy "drum 'n bass" to the glacial pace of so-called "isolationist ambient" music.
The collaboration between Bates and Harris began in 1994 with the album Drift, which established the pattern of creating four lengthy pieces, in this case running from about 14 to some 18 1/2 minutes, in which Harris lays down the chilling, austere and yet compelling backdrop for Bates' slowly-enunciated croon detailing the murder of poor Polly by her lover, or how Jimmy the fowler shot his love "in the guise of a swan," and so forth.
For many people, a snippet of either the music or it and the vocals might be more than enough, as this is a type of music that can easily be off-putting unless one appreciates the modern update of a time-honored tradition. And, for those that do share that appreciation, Harris and Bates promptly went back in the studio and created two more recordings, Passages, recorded in the summer of 1996 and then Incest Songs, laid down over the last half of 1997. The individual albums were released by the Italian label, Musica Maxima Magnetica.
And, for those who simply have to have all three recordings together in one nice, neat package, as was the case with this listener, who bought the set near a decade ago, there is 1998's compilation, Murder Ballads (The Complete Collection) with all twelve tracks on the three albums showing both original ideas and others updating classic ballads like "Long Lankin," "Lucy Wan," and "The Banks of Fordie," while some are based on real-life incidents like "The Murder of Maria Marten," derived from an 1827 incident in England.
While true enthusiasts can probably run through the three discs in succession and indulge fully in the three hours of extraordinary ambient sounds and soft and otherworldly crooning, it often works well for this blogger to listen to the first album, wait a few days or so and then listed to the next one, followed a similar interval before delving into the last recording.
The compilation, released by Invisible Records, a Chicago-based label founded by Martin Atkins, formerly of Public Image, Limited, and which put out a number of Harris' recordings, including on his own short-lived Possible imprint, features a black booklet with striking gold lettering for the text, including the lyrics to all twelve pieces, and art with a medieval touch. The box set is not likely easy to find, but it remains a fascinating excursion into musical and lyrical realms that evoke a sense of both macabre history and modern soundcraft. It's an amazing aural experience that rewards with each subsequent listen.
Mick Harris/Martyn Bates: Murder Ballads, The Complete Collection (Invisible Records, 1998)
Disc 1: Drift
1. The Death of Polly 14:09
2. The Fowler 18:32
3. Lucy Wan 14:39
4. Long Lankin 16:05
Disc 2: Passages
1. The Bramble Briar 13:27
2. The Cruel Mother 11:24
3. The Banks of Fordie 13:07
4. The Murder of Maria Marten 17:33
Disc 3: Incest Songs
1. The Bonny Hind 12:11
2. Sheaf and Knife 12:07
3. The Two Brothers 17:09
4. Edward 17:41