frostlake: White Moon, Black Moon
White Moon, Black Moon is the debut album from frostlake (aka Jan Todd), a songstress and multi-instrumentalist who might better be described as an enchantress, given the haunting quality of her songs. Issued on Discus Music (founded by Martin Archer and Mick Beck in 1994) and recorded at FrogPond in Sheffield, the twelve-song set calls to mind the pastoral folk-prog era of the ‘70s but infused with an eerie, even cryptic edge. Hers is a very English-sounding music that's lo-fi, atmospheric, and tinged with psychedelia, and that dark woodland depicted on the cover serves as an apt metaphor for the project's subtly macabre tone, one that on its surface seems congenial enough but hints at a darker undertow within.
Todd herself is credited with voice, guitars, electronics, viola, accordion, keyboards, and percussion (one song even credits her with llama's toenails), and is joined by a solid group of Sheffield musicians on the recording. Certain elements give the album its defining character, among them the woodwinds of Nigel Manning (flute), Martin Archer (clarinets), and Mick Somerset (bass clarinet, bass flute, bass recorder) and a rich percussive soundworld that includes handheld sleigh bells, gong, thunder box, temple bells, wind chimes, and knitting needles. The element that most defines the frostlake sound, however, is Todd's hushed voice, which appears on all twelve tracks and, depending on the song, could conceivably invite comparison to Julee Cruise, Grouper, or Marissa Nadler. In keeping with the sound design, her lyrics are poetic and evocative and have strong ties to the natural world (e.g., “Wait in the dark, turn out the light, let the moon light up the room / Where the shadows are falling in line with the thoughts left behind”).Each song is haunting in its own way, yet certain ones stand out as especially memorable, typically due to instrumental touches that differentiate one piece from another. The combination of flute, clarinet, waterphone, and wind chimes, for instance, makes for a perfect complement to her delicate vocal in “Dark Winds,” whereas the bass clarinet adds a woodland quality that strengthens the aromatic effect of “Night Watch” and her E-bow playing enhances the otherworldly ambiance of the title track. Admittedly, any project described as pastoral folk-prog risks being branded twee, but the darker undercurrent in frostlake's music protects it from any such label. Even a cursory listen to the album makes clear that White Moon, Black Moon is closer in spirit to a fairy tale by the brothers Grimm than any by Hans Christian Andersen.