Stone Breath – The Silver Skein Unwound

Stone Breath (1995-2006), in the words of its founder and mastermind Timothy Renner was,

not part of any collective, or any commune…(it) was not new. It was cracked. Broken.

In this quote he manages to pen an apt epitaph, one that focuses on two very strong points of Stone Breath; the creative originality of the music and the organic spirit that moves, palpably through these recordings.

The aforementioned originality of the music however is not meant to imply, as Renner himself acknowledges, that it is in any way “new” sounding. The spectral, rural sounds of banjo, dulcimer, harmonium, and acoustic guitar, that are the heartbeat of the music on The Silver Skein Unwound feel more timeless than avant-garde. However, these instruments are combined with decidedly experimental elements, including Timothy’s unique, and sitar-like “Revelator-Guitar”, “Headless-Horsefiddle”, and various clanking, clanging, and shimmering noises set against droning textures.

The songs themselves move between beautifully structured balladry, which weaves together the stygian baritone of Renner, and the graceful, sylvan voice of Sarada, to churning, psychedelic, chthonic soundscapes, wherein the listener is enveloped within the space of the sound, rather than moving with the progression of the song. The music is both haunted and haunting.

From the opening ballad Wasp-Sting, Thorn, and Arrowhead, evocative in measures of both a medieval, troubadour-like sensibility and 1960s acid-folk, to its recasting as the a cappella piece Arrowhead, Thorn, and Wasp-Sting at the album’s close, the listener is taken on a journey, both introspective and cosmic, through a sacred forest of symbols and sounds.

Renner’s banjo playing, done in the rural “claw hammer style” tradition, along with the flat picked guitars give many of the songs a unique drive that acts as a sort of counterbalance to the more melancholic elements of the music. In fact, despite the dark feeling of much of the music, The Silver Skein Unwound is undoubtedly shot through with light, at times taking on the quality of a peculiar and somewhat animistic musica sacra.

Thematically, the lyrics seem to slide effortlessly between tales of personal loss, ghost stories, nature worship, Kulturkritik, somewhat ambiguous Christian imagery tinged with Gnostic sympathies, and what appear to be ritualistic curse songs. Each song is given, in the illustriously designed CD booklet, a separate illustration executed by Timothy, who, aside from being a talented musical artist, is quite accomplished as a visual artist, as well. In these images the theme of the track is expounded upon on an imaginal level. Recalling the medieval style of illuminating sacral texts by means of illustrations, the artwork provided greatly adds to the overall presence of the music.

Musically, one could perhaps draw comparisons to In Gowan Ring, Current 93, Comus, Pearls Before Swine or Woven Hand – but these are comparisons made more on the premise of it feels like, than it sounds like-and that of course is a very subjective judgment. Ultimately, in accordance with the words of its founder, Stone Breath is its own organism. It is a voicing of sacred praises and meditations that reflect a deeply organic, immanent, and unpretentious spirituality. Music this pure in our times is rare indeed…

artist: Stone Breath
label: Camera Obscura Records
details: cd, 13 tracks, 2003 [CAM061CD]

mp3: Wasp-Sting, Thorn and Arrowhead