With some albums it is not immediately obvious what you are getting into. With Irish artist Hilary Woods’ sophomore album, Birthmarks, you definitely know what you’re in for from the start. The first track, Tongues of Wild Boar, begins with a noisy scratching that is soon taken over by an ominous electronic beat before the scratching resumes – but this time, that of a cello. And finally, those beautiful, breathy vocals – reminiscent for me of fellow Irish chanteuse Bonnie Stewart (better known as Bonniesongs) at her darkest. And, to a certain extent, Hilary Woods plays a similar minimalist indie-folk. However, while Bonnie Stewart only occasionally heads into the darkness, Hilary Woods inhabits it. But throughout this opening track, and indeed the remainder of the album, there is beauty in the malevolence. While the music is unquestionably menacing, Hilary Woods’ vocals are inviting and entrancing. I guess that alongside Bonnie Stewart they also remind me a little of Heather Nova, but they don’t really sound like either, and they are incredibly emotive. The music is harder to pin down. It evokes traditional folk and drone, but hidden (almost drowned out at times) by swathes of industrial noise, darkwave and blackgaze.
In case you were in any doubt, second track Orange Tree brings forth more of the dark, yet delicate atmosphere. It should definitely come as no surprise to learn that Hilary Woods has composed an original score for a horror film. I’m willing to bet more than a few reviews of this album will highlight its “cinematic” qualities. This is aided in no small way by the use of noise. One such rising squall of noise heralds the third track, Through the Dark, Love. This noise dissipates into some lush strings and more of those gorgeous vocals, and ultimately this is what you will hear throughout the album. A haunting and hypnotic combination of the abrasiveness of noise and electronics paired with the simplicity and gentleness of cello and voice. Of course, there is more to the mix than that, but those are what tend to grab the attention.
Following Through the Dark, Love is Lay Bare, and this song sounds just as you might expect from its title. It’s strikingly (laid) bare, and strikingly gorgeous. The drone that has been hinted at up until now comes to the fore, and I can’t help but be reminded of Fós, whose debut EP I recently reviewed. I love this new wave of Irish folk which is celebrating traditional folk in a modern way. This is followed by Mud and Stones which impresses me as soon as the sax appears over the almost obligatory introductory noise. There’s a bewitching disquiet to the track, and although it seems to serve as a lengthy introduction to the following track, The Mouth, I far prefer it. In fact, the sequence of Through the Dark, Love to Mud and Stones is absolutely my favourite on the album, and these three are probably my three favourite tracks from the album.
After the gritty and dirty industrial folk blast of The Mouth, Cleansing Ritual seems to work as a coda, in the same way Mud and Stones did as an intro. It also provides a necessary burst of clean sound, as an aftermath for the preceding apocalyptic racquet. Even though noise still pervades the Ritual, the atmosphere is far less oppressive. As drones go, this is a siren’s song, and strangely alluring. It would appear that as enjoyable as The Mouth is (and it is, in a truly bombastic fashion), I prefer the tracks which bookend it, and that is as close as it comes to me finding any problem with this album, for it is quite a short album (or, at least, it is so enjoyable it seems to be over in no time). I would have loved to have had more tracks like Mud and Stones and Cleansing Ritual, to act as interludes and segues. But when it comes down to it, the album doesn’t feel too short, and I know I tend to be in a minority for liking what others often consider “filler”. I dare say for many listeners, this album is the perfect length and, to be fair, there really is only so much darkness that one can take, even when it is presented in such an attractive fashion.
It probably makes sense, then, that the final song, There Is No Moon, is the most delicate. There may be no moon, but this still feels like the lightest track and it has a fragile beauty. So much so, that it’s easy to under-appreciate this song after all that has gone before. It took me a few listens of the album before I enjoyed it as much as the rest of the album. It’s a magnificent release of tension to end an album which has been ominous and foreboding, and yet lush and delightful – comforting and disturbing in equal measures.
01. Tongues of Wild Boar (3:54)
02. Orange Tree (2:48)
03. Through the Dark, Love (5:07)
04. Lay Bare (3:07)
05. Mud and Stones (4:20)
06. The Mouth (4:45)
07. Cleansing Ritual (4:27)
08. There Is No Moon (4:12)
Total Time – 32:40
Hilary Woods – Vocals, Guitars, Piano, Field Recordings, Analogue Synthesizers, Electronics, Programming
Kyrre Laastad – Drums & Percussion
Okkyung Lee – Cello
Lasse Marhaug – Noise
Dag Stiberg – Saxophone
Record Label: Sacred Bones
Country of Origin: Ireland
Date of Release: 13th March 2020