Sunday 26 July 2020

Body and soul: Anakronos, ‘The Red Book of Ossory’

As you may know, I am one of the writing team on Frances Wilson's ArtMuseLondon website, where this article first appeared. For a handsome range of reviews and thought pieces covering all genres of art and music, please pay the site a visit here.


This brilliant suite of songs practises its own apparent witchcraft, seducing you more or less straightaway with its beauty – which doesn’t fade after repeated listens. But as the debut album from Anakronos grows more familiar, it reveals and revels in layer after layer of sinister chills and thought-provoking arrangements and effects.

Anakronos are a recently-formed ensemble with a hint of the ‘supergroup’ about them. Their vocalist Caitriona O’Leary is an established solo artist working within both the early music and trad folk spheres. Deirdre O’Leary (wind instruments) and Nick Roth (saxophones) are mostly linked to classical ensembles, with Roth especially active in contemporary music; while Francesco Turrisi (keyboards, percussion) brings the quartet full circle with a background in jazz and world, as well as early, music.

So, this isn’t quite the ‘ancient music / modern kit’ project it might appear at first glance. As the band’s name tells us, they are not quite in sync, out of time: even their instrumental make-up is odd, elusive. With no conventional chordal accompaniment (for example, there’s no guitar, or piano – the keyboards are synthesisers, used to provide additional melody, basslines or atmosphere, rather than heft), there’s an airy expansiveness to the sound, providing space for listeners’ imaginations to roam.

And there’s a lot for us to think about.

While any recording needs to stand on its own terms, this release wouldn’t exist without its backstory. The Red Book of the title is a 14th-century manuscript featuring a collection of poems by the Bishop of Ossory, Richard de Ledrede. The Bishop composed the verses to give his cathedral clergy an array of sacred lyrics to sing, against the possibility they might choose more corrupt material instead.

If you’re detecting an element of extremism at this point, you’d be right. The album’s sleeve notes detail de Ledrede’s darker outlet for his fervour, namely witch-hunting. From the general mayhem, two figures emerge: Dame Alice Kyteler, a wealthy businesswoman targeted by de Ledrede, and her servant Petronilla de Meath. Through her connections, Dame Alice escaped the inquisition’s clutches – but Petronilla was caught and burnt at the stake for witchcraft (the first such victim on record).

Much of Caitriona O’Leary’s work is rooted in scholarship as well as performance, and ‘The Red Book of Ossory’ project is not historical in concept alone. The words are taken from the Bishop’s texts and – echoing de Ledrede’s challenge to his priests to find suitable tunes for his verses – O’Leary has set them all, seamlessly, to a variety of surviving pieces composed across the 12th to 15th centuries. Already a remarkable achievement in itself.

But that extra step – forming Anakronos and re-arranging the songs accordingly – makes ‘The Red Book of Ossory’ a work of singular genius. The bloodthirsty Bishop may seem to have been a mess of contradictions, a vicious sadist somehow wielding the pen of a saint. But in fact, his visceral imagining of his victims’ supposed unholy activities does seem to influence his devotional texts, with their explicit, near-erotic focus on the body (in bloom and in decay) and esoteric / mystical references. These fever dreams seemed to me to anticipate to some extent the later metaphysical poets – I couldn’t help thinking of the wracked nature of John Donne’s sacred poetry, for example.

The band’s masterstroke is to bring this tension out in the music. You could almost say that in its clarity and purity, Catriona O’Leary’s voice is the angelic element – forgive the cliché. But the instrumentation stalks and encircles the vocal line, providing the sonic corruption, the turmoil in de Ledrede’s psyche.

(Photo by Tara Slye)

The mood is set from the opening track, ‘Canite, Canite’. A deep synth note’s ominous rumble ushers in the sax and clarinet shadowing and mimicking the dancing vocal until they overwhelm it. Elsewhere, on ‘Maria Decoquit Panem Salvificum’ and ‘Amoris Vinculo’ for example, pounding drums an unmistakeably ritualistic flavour, suggesting a clash of pagan with Christian, a thrilling yet disturbing way of illustrating the Bishop’s fantasies through the arrangement. Nor do Anakronos allow you to forget the heartrending events in the narrative: one of the album’s most beautiful melodies, ‘Summe Deus Clemencie’, speaks of the mercy of God – but played over an effect of intensifying flames.

Personal highlights? There’s the haunting ‘Ubi Iam Sunt?’ (‘Where are they now?’) which features perhaps the most arresting lyrics on the album – how can the lines “You will see what and how much in the world is / Seductive error” feel so elusive and immediate at the same time? – and a perfect marriage between text and setting as they audibly darken together. My favourite track – as I type – is ‘Regine Glorie’, where the voice glides over a slinky bassline and persistent, percussive clap. The backing track intensifies despite the steady pace, with every player taking a solo, volume and density increasing, driving the vocal on to further ecstatic heights until truly unfettered, derailed from its devotional course.

Anakronos don’t sound quite like anybody else, although I think there are some useful reference points for the curious. For example, if you like the classical / jazz collaborations that have appeared on the ECM label over the years – such as Jan Garbarek with the Hilliard Ensemble, or John Surman’s albums with the Trans4mation string quartet – or the vocal and rhythmic stylings of the band Dead Can Dance, I think you will take to Anakronos very easily.

It will be fascinating to see what stories they tell us next time – but for now, ‘The Red Book of Ossory’ is warmly recommended.


You can buy 'The Red Book of Ossory' from Heresy Records here.

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