released March 9, 2014
Review by Nathan Lewis Williams
(Glastonbury Assembly Rooms – Fabulous Furry Folk Club promoter)
ASH MANDRAKE – Footprints From A Tribal Id review
Ash Mandrake must surely be one of the most gifted and hard working performance artists in Britain today. A multi-instrumentalist of considerable skill and dedication, his live shows have in recent years perfectly bridged the gap between enjoyable madcap entertainment and something far deeper: an uncompromising otherworldliness; his deeply medieval bardic invocations of another time and place mixed with more accessible humour, storytelling and virtuosic renditions of familiar material, accompanied by his custom made guitar-bass machine and subtly layered vocal loops. To see him live is to experience a unique genius at work, his talents solidified by intense focus and practice.
His epically prehistoric album, Footprints From a Tribal Id, is not for the faint-hearted, and the concessions to accessibility woven into his live performances are largely absent here. The story traces the turn of the seasons through a year, invoking some distant Antediluvian past with an almost cinematic vividness. The soundscape is minimal, with few guitars or other complex instruments, until their very welcome appearance in the central poem, Flake, and the later summer section; most of the album is taken up with primal, layered vocal chants and utterances of a sparse, proto-medieaval tonality, interspersed with rhythmical episodes on a cluster of hand-drums, bells and gongs, all complimenting the succinct, exquisite poetry which is mostly spoken. Occasional electro-acoustic minimalism adds to the icy atmosphere of the winter sections, while the skilful
spoken word interludes show Ash’s bardic gravitas at its best, the recurring vocal harmonies alongside providing texture and a tonal context, whilst also allowing the mischievousness of various telluric alter-egos to peek, imp-like, through the sonic weave.
To understand the form scheme and plot, it is well worth visiting Mandrake’s online synopsis – ashmandrake.com/creative-content/footprints-from-a-tribal-id/
– which outlines the palindromic sections and the overall seasonal themes of light and shade, death and rebirth. The solemn ending, a funerary farewell to a brother on his way to a home amongst the stars, is moving in a way that belies the strange otherness of the album’s imagined world – the cosmic conclusion reminding us of something deeper than even our apparent humanity.
This is a profound work, and impossible to categorise. One can hope that one day it might be studied alongside the canonical classics of poetical and avant-garde composition. It’s not folk music, pure storytelling or electro-acoustic abstraction, though it contains these elements. Ash Mandrake, in his self-made, near-solipsistic artistry, is like a William Blake of our times, seemingly oblivious to current mores and preoccupations, and his words belong in a pantheon quite beyond time at all. Though unlikely to find much popular favour in the fleeting blips of current trends, this singular album, archetypal and above all timelessly bardic, deserves to endure as much as the mythos it invokes.
Nathan Lewis Williams