In 2012, a band billed as Mediaeval Baebes releasing a double album called The Huntress can turn out to be one of two things: most likely, an ironic, angst-driven ironic noise punk band comprised entirely of men who surf and have drug problems; or, in a rare scenario, an all-female early music vocal ensemble.
It’s 2012’s lucky day, then – because the enchantresses of Mediaeval Baebes fit the latter description resoundingly. With the release of their first record Salva Nos in 1997, the Baebes have been spinning their sylvan harmonies on everything from medieval traditionals to stylized arrangements of more contemporary songs to original period works.
But maybe the release of The Huntress, the group’s seventh studio album, is much more appropriate now than ever. Consider the recent trend of vocal music in the upper echelons of pop culture, like the candy chorale hit sitcom Glee, the flat-ironed British boy-singers of One Direction, and the growing epidemic of collegiate a cappella within the United States and now throughout the rest of the world.
Of course, The Huntress sounds nothing like any of that. This is early music through and through: songs with titles that sound either like Victorian poems or black metal songs. Wynter Wakeneth, for example begins with solo wood flutes and something like a lute, and who even knows what language it’s in? Same goes for Lenten Ys Come, a driving canon-like tune with smatterings of clapping and yawning high chords – the Baebes sing in what one can only assumed to be an “Olde” tongue.
Ultimately, though, the Baebes assert themselves on The Huntress as not only musically beautiful, but also relevant. Why this is a gorgeous release is, in the end, not a hard sell: the record swells with winding, hypnotic folk choruses, like in the hearty Care Away, hovers in careful, lilting melodies of washes of finger picking, as in Under the Willow Tree, and stuns with choice a cappella ballads, like the scene-stealing take on She Moved Through the Fayre.
But a good argument can also be made that The Huntress is a vital listen in the present day, despite its antiquated musical style. She Moved Through the Fayre, for instance, is quite literally tear-inducing, a track at once grave and gentle, light and bitterly black. Such a raw, emotional punch from an English traditional serves as a reminder of where a lot of the pathos in contemporary music comes from. In fact, after a listen to The Huntress, it’s not difficult to hear the foundations of Led Zeppelin‘s harmony-laden hard rock/folk rock hybrid, or the kinds of catchy, comfortable melodies that have evolved into contemporary pop hooks (maybe it’s a stretch, but take away the whispers in Jennet’s Song, speed it up, and add a beat, and Kelly Clarkson could rock that melody). Not to mention, of course, that a few of these tracks could even be considered contemporary folk: Cry Of The Garb easily recalls a foreign-language cover of something off of Fleet Foxes‘ often choral self-titled debut LP.
Does this album stand up on its own? Yes, mostly. As mentioned, many of its tracks are simultaneously rich and slender, ghostly and alive – meticulously crafted yet wholly organic performances of timeless music. Granted, for those not particularly interested in the mediaeval, the record as a whole may not be one to return to: with such a commitment to the style, some of these tracks are inevitably too esoteric, and inaccessible for some. But at least one listen to The Huntress will prove emotionally and intellectually rewarding, as it is an album that provocatively (albeit perhaps unwittingly) explores the roots of the vocal-heavy music in proliferation today. One Direction they are not, but Mediaeval Baebes’ efforts in vocal music are no less powerful – and a whole lot more interesting to listen to.