When this album landed it sparked off some juvenile tittering in the TPA cyber-office. “Mediæval Bæbes? I prefer the Jurassic Jezebels! Or the Tudor Teasers! Or even the Big Bang Bimbos!”, said several people who were really old enough to know better.
Not very PC. But then, neither is the name “Baebes”. A little bit of gentle mockery is inevitable.
Having said that, there is nothing jocular or light-hearted about the music. The Mediæval Bæbes live up to the first part of their name by performing traditional songs and poetry from the Middle Ages, sometimes set to original music composed to sound like it came from the 11th Century or thereabouts.
They also sing in a variety of languages, including (deep breath), Latin, Middle English, French, Italian, Russian, Swedish, Scottish English, German, Manx Gaelic, Spanish, Welsh, Bavarian, Provencal, Irish, Modern English and Cornish. Alas, no Klingon. Being mediæval, the songs are mostly about God and death. I think – my Latin is a bit rusty.
Formed in 1996 by members of the band Miranda Sex Garden, you’ve probably heard some of their work even if you have never bought an album – they performed the soundtrack to the BBC’s 2005 costume drama The Virgin Queen and the title song to 2016’s TV series Victoria. Ethereal and ecclesiastical, they conjure up images of multi-coloured sunlight pouring through stained-glass windows and striking stone walls, and evoke the smell of incense and rich wood polish. You can see why they are a go-to group for TV producers wanting something that sounds centuries-old yet modern at the same time.
Their new album, their tenth, is called Prayers of the Rosary, which the religious ones among you will know are meditations based on the stories of the New Testament, using rosary beads as reminders and touchstones. So you make the sign of the cross on the cross and pray the Apostles’ Creed on the crucifix; say the Our Father on the next large bead; pray the Glory Be on the chain; and pray on each of the five sections of the rosary according to the day of the week.
The titles on the album link in with these prayers – track four is Glory Be, track 8 Hail Mary, track 10 Fatima Prayer, all the things you chant as you work your way around the rosary until you’re back where you started and your tea’s gone cold. They are sung in Latin – or it could be Klingon; I’m not a cunning linguist – to original tunes composed as mock early Christian plainsong, composed by founding member Katherine Blake.
Backing is provided by, among others, multi-instrumentalists Michael York (who is part of The Utopia Strong with Kavus Torabi and Steve “Interesting” Davis), Charlie Cawood (of Lost Crowns, Knifeworld and Anathema), and Kavus Torabi himself. They play a variety of instruments including bagpipes, hurdy-gurdy, tanpura, lyre, oud, Indian harmonium and Chinese pipa, but they are never intrusive, creating a supporting atmosphere rather than taking the melodic lead.
Recorded at “sacred” sites including Glastonbury’s Chalice Well and the Avebury stone circle, the result is mostly gentle, contemplative and ethereal, with haunting female voices harmonising against single note drones. Sometimes there is a simple woodwind tune accompanied by plucked strings, or the sound of church bells and running water, and everything is in a minor key, because nothing says religion like miserable music.
Sometimes it can all come across as rather sinister, like opener Rosario with its slightly discordant drone backing, the burble of pigeons and distant cries of pain or ecstasy, as if it’s coming from an empty shell of a cathedral that recently played host to a satanic mass. Domine Lesu and Memorare have a folk influence, like a stripped-back early Clannad, while the eight-minute closer Credo sets the harmonic voices against a backing of nothing but seemingly random bells.
I like it – I’m not religious in any way, apart from believing Daevid Allen was God, but we all need a little bit of contemplation and meditation in our lives and this album certainly hits the spot, creating a peaceful, tranquil ambience, a moment of calm amidst the frantic turmoil of modern life. But I’m not sure I need any more Mediæval Bæbes albums – if they all sound like this (and my research suggests they mostly do) then one is enough for my spiritual needs.
‘Gutta musicorum longum sufficit in usum’, as those Latins used to say.
01. Rosario (4:19)
02. Queen of Heaven (3:21)
03. Domine Lesu (3:41)
04. Glory Be (3:33)
05. Hail Holy Queen (3:56)
06. Memorae (4:28)
07. Pater Noster (4:27)
08. Hail Mary (3:44)
09. Prayer to the Archangel Michael (3:55)
10. Fatima Prayer (2:59)
11. Angel of God (2:57)
12. Credo (8:21)
Total Time – 49:40
Katharine Blake – Vocals
Fiona Fey – Vocals
Marie Findley – Vocals
Sophia Halberstam – Vocals
Anna Pool – Vocals
Josephine Ravenheart – Vocals
~ Guest Vocalists:
Esther Dee, Giles Davies, Ruth Galloway, Polly Harley, Sophia Brumfitt, Karen Kay, Rosa Marsh, Catherine Gerbrands, Maria Moraru
Katharine Blake – Violin, Recorders, Percussion, Glockenspiel
Charlie Cawood – Zither, Lyre, Gothic Lap Harp, Hammered Dulcimer, Pipa, Daruan, Guzheng, Oud, Bağlama Saz, Bouzouki
Michael J. York – Field Recordings, Bagpipes, Tanpura, Duduk, Hurdy-Gurdy, Lyre, Zither, Church Organ, Double Bass, Whistle, Hulusi, Wine Bottles, Toy Piano, Percussion, Clock Chimes
Robin Blick – French Horn
Catherine Gerbrands – Musical Saw, Bowed Glass
Kavus Torabi – Indian Harmonium, Santoor
Tim Bowen – Cello
Record label: Bellisima Records
Country of origin: U.K.
Date of Release: 4th December 2020