Richard Wileman’s fourth solo album, The Forked Road, sees him integrate more of the elements he has used so vividly through the years on his Karda Estra releases whilst retaining the distinct personality of the recent work done under his own name. There’s less of a singer songwriter vibe here, when compared to his solo releases to date, underlined by most of the tracks being instrumental, playing to Richard’s strengths as an arranger of darkly eccentric Gothic horror vignettes.
Wileman describes The Forked Road as a “prog/folk horror concept album” – which sums it up rather nicely. Rooted in his home county of Wiltshire, it charts an encounter between a passing comet and the Earth, “resulting in the undead rising and converging on The Ridgeway”, an 87 mile route through the chalk hill that starts at the Avebury stone circle.
The album is bookended, in reverse order, by the first and last volumes of the possibly apocryphal Book of English Magic. The Last Book of English Magic opens with an elegiac beauty, like the starting of a new day, harp tolling like bells, guitars and plucked strings moving into a chime. Bass gives depth as clarinet rises in a gentle pastoral refrain. It really is a gorgeous opening, but the idyllic scene soon shifts sideways – there is magick in the air… Wileman’s arrangements are, as always, detailed and intriguing, and this delightful instrumental sets up a more than inviting vista.
The mood changes with a fingerstyle guitar intro to Butterfly, leading into a typically ornate and beguiling melody, Richard’s voice punctuated by lilting guitar. The whole is, as the title suggests, as light and airy as a summer’s day; the calm before an impending storm? As paths diverge at The Forked Road, the sun seems to set, and the unexpected starts to take shape in a mystical and quite jarring instrumental of crystalline textures.
You can feel the warmth in the strident chords and riffs of Children of the Sun, into which Wileman’s voice emerges to give the song an almost ’60s edge, Amy Fry’s voice supporting beautifully in the chorus. The song seems to look back at beguiling times, now ebbing away, to describe the lives of those now departed – and who are about to make a reappearance. There’s a cosmic glow as the acoustic nature of the piece is expanded with detailed additions to make it so much more than a song sung with a single acoustic guitar could deliver, but at its heart, that’s just what it is as Wileman successfully integrates wider arrangements into songs that would still shine with just voices and guitar.
Pagan elements emerge in Avenue & Circle, which suggests the ancient monuments to be found in the Wiltshire countryside, lost knowledge of the natural order tangled with the long history of human experience. It’s a sparse piece with occasional rhythmic beats, a supernatural aura filling the air as we wait in anticipation… Amy takes the vocal for Comet Vs the Earth with acoustic guitar accompaniment. The mystical depth that Wileman is so adept at permeates as the dead are gradually brought back to life by the passing of the enigmatic comet, making for an intriguing listen.
Have you heard the news? The dead walk! “Old bones are reincarnated”, but they don’t appear to be of the flesh-eating variety, Old Bones making for a sedate and quite majestic rising of the dead, the improbable momentum replicated in the cyclical rhythm, harp and keyboards adding beautiful textures to the duetting voices of Richard and Chantelle Smith. This is the kind of zombie apocalypse I can fully get behind!
As magical and elusive as it sounds, Spectres of the Ridgeway is an extended instrumental awash with colours and textures. A peaceful image of wandering figures in the gloom; you can’t fully make them out amid the intrinsic hidden forces at work. The album’s longest track, it swirls in full moonlight, searching notes creeping into the darkest corners before evaporating into the ether in an avant garde dreamscape, shards of sound cutting through towards the end like daggers of ice. There’s a dark majesty as The Inevitable Beast appears, raised on waves of keyboards with Wileman’s voice in the middle distance as everything goes tits up for humanity.
We end with The First Book of English Magic, the flip-side of where we began as half-lit electric guitar soars over organ, back from the future and reverse recorded towards the end to add to the woozily off-kilter feel that the album has successfully conjured.
Richard Wileman writes great songs, that’s a given, but it’s his ability to arrange them so vividly amid supernatural textures and an aura of science fiction that keeps me coming back for more. Another winner from a man who has been following his own path in eclectic sounds for longer than anyone has a right to without being more widely appreciated. Cherish the man and the cottage industry of the peculiar but intensely listenable that he has built up over years of active service.
01. The Last Book of English Magic (4:58)
02. Butterfly (3:41)
03. The Forked Road (2:29)
04. Children of the Sun (5:12)
05. Avenue & Circle (3:25)
06. Comet Vs the Earth (3:07)
07. Old Bones (2:50)
08. Spectres of the Ridgeway (6:46)
09. The Inevitable Beast (5:47)
10. The First Book of English Magic (1:56)
Total Time – 41:11
Richard Wileman – Guitars, Vocals, Bass, Keyboards, Percussion, Bouzouki, Appalachian Dulcimer, Accordion, Melodica, Artwork
Amy Fry – Vocals, Clarinet, Saxophone
Chantelle Smith – Vocals, Harp
Sienna Wileman – Avebury Sound Recordings
Record Label: Believers Roast
Country of Origin: U.K.
Date of Release: 12th January 2024