Exactly four hundred years ago to the day, eight women and two men were executed by hanging at Gallows Hill in Lancashire, England. They had been accused of the murders of ten people by the use of witchcraft in a trial lasting only two days. It would become one of the best documented cases of it's kind but also the most disastrous, prejudiced and oft mythologised miscarriages of justice in the history of the pre-industrialised North. I won't expand upon the story in any more detail here as there are plenty of informative online resources and well researched books available which can provide a far more authoritative account of the events leading up to this tragedy.
Dean Honer of Sheffield groups I Monster / All Seeing I and Adrian Flanagan, a Salfordian and member of electro-pranksters Kings Have Long Arms have created a concept album commemorating the so-called Pendle Witches. The true stroke of genius here though is the casting of actress Maxine Peake who provides the narrative throughout the record, her beautiful Lancastrian burr is a fantastic counterpoint to the vintage analogue electronics and firmly places the recording within it's specific geography.
Released via Finders Keepers (who else?) on their Bird sub-label, the album is described on their website as "one part political commentary and feminist manifesto and two parts theatrical fakeloric sound poem". Sonically, this is an album that sits well amongst the likes of Belbury Poly, Moon Wiring Club and Pye Corner Audio in it's conjuring of the ghosts of the past through it's antiquated machines - the past inside the present. Or, as it is more eloquently stated on the ERC Soundcloud page; "Post 1612 Ghosts on Pre 1977 analogue Synthesisers".
The journey starts with 'Autobahn 666' (the first in a series of four travelogues) as our intrepid travellers set off on a pilgrimage to Pendle Hill from Salford via the devil's road, the A666 "like Terry and June in a battered old Hillman Minx". The second travelogue proudly proclaims "This is the North, the fantastical North. Home of proud, hard grafting bastards".
And this is what makes the album such a pleasure to listen to, the narrative is both incredibly poignant and yet brimming with dark humour. On 'Her Kind' Peake recites three verses in which the late American poet Anne Sexton identifies with the misunderstood women in society against a battery of eerie sounds and screams, the final verse ending with "A woman like that is not ashamed to die. I have been her kind." It's a powerful track that owes as much to the narrator's vehement delivery as it does to the significance of the original poem.
As the story's protagonists reach Pendle and are ushered into the gift shop, Peake snorts "How do we market the loss and hanging of women like us? With coasters and tea towels". On 'Trial By Jiggery Pokery', Peake asks "how can one defend oneself against rhetorical slights of hand when the law, if it's to be infallible must be manifestly evident. It is not manifestly evident that Saint Peter appeared to the Pope or that man can walk on water but it is taken unquestionably as infallible". The last travelogue recounts a visit to the grave of Alice Nutter, "the educated, the wealthiest, the luckiest of them all - The Pendle Witch with a grave".
The album closes out with a searing condemnation of the injustices which occurred four hundred years ago, yet are still apparent today as Peake channels the spirit of Owd Demdike on 'Ghost Of Old Lizzy Southerns Returns'; "Curse the ancient law books you still use today and Boots the chemist for stealing all my potions. Bark of tree and twelve crushed red ants, it's the London look. Curse the endless persecution of 'our kind', there's nothing more wicked than a watching, but turned blind eye."
1612 Underture is an incredibly passionate, brilliantly realised album which, in lesser hands could have easily fallen into the 'worthy but dull' category and is more than deserving of your attention. It comes very highly recommended to adventurous listeners, lovers of analogue electronics and scholars of all things hauntological.
Both CD and digital download versions are available over at the Finders Keepers online shop.
Dedicated to the memory of the so-called Pendle Witches who were executed on 20th August 1612; Elizabeth Device, James Device, Alizon Device, Anne Whittle (aka Chattox), Anne Redferne, Jane Bulcock, John Bulcock, Alice Nutter, Katherine Hewitt and Jennet Preston.
Also dedicated to the memory of the accused; Alice Grey who was eventually acquitted on all charges and Elizabeth Southerns (aka Owd Demdike) who died whilst awaiting trial.