It’s not a coincidence that Masaki Batoh’s and Helena Espvall’s home countries are both around 60 percent forested. This collaboration between Batoh, frontman for Japanese psych-rockers Ghost, and Espvall, cellist for Philly free-folk ensemble Espers, lives on the fringe of the forest, where civilization meets culture. What began as Espvall’s attempt to draft Batoh into collaborating on arrangements of traditional Swedish folk songs gradually expanded in scope. The final product incorporates free improvisation, a medieval melody, a Finnish folk tune, even a Son House cover — but it arrives as a darkly resonant whole.
Opening with a Carl Orff-worthy crash but quickly retreating into a saturated drone, “Polska” is less a song than an opportunity for the listener to calibrate to the album’s low-key mood. One of the album’s main sources of continuity, allowing it to draw its heterogeneous materials together, is a dedication to domestic idylls. Yet there’s more fresh air here than in the pale window-lit rooms that make up Damon & Naomi’s music, and serious intimations of the otherworldliness lurk at the outskirts of these songs.
Still, the album never ventures too far into the forest surrounding it. The Swedish folk songs Espvall and Batoh arrange are simultaneously the album’s anchors and its pivots: They manage to stick to the script without hamming it up or disappearing into the songs. The listener can sense the pagan romanticism of these songs even without the aid of a lyric sheet (which translates the Swedish songs but, strangely, only transliterates Batoh’s "Zeranium"), but the way the lilting, cyclical folk of “Kling Klang” flows effortlessly into the shape-shifting improvisation of “Kyklopes” is more important than either song on its own. What counts is not the forest or the village, but the movement between them.
This isn’t a departure from their previous work as much as it is a refinement of a particular strain within it. Ghost and Espers are disciplined bands that take inspiration from seemingly undisciplined genres: free jazz, psych, the organic side of Krautrock and, yes, folk. There’s not much bloat in either band’s discography because they know fairly well which parts of their record collections they want to inhabit and develop. The improvised instrumental "Beneath Halo" shares DNA with British folk: Batoh’s fingerpicked guitar stutters and teases out a pinwheeling figure, as if he were carefully feeling out one of Nick Drake’s more technical moves, while Espvall’s cello bolsters his improvisations with grainy, numinous scrapes.
On one level, this self-titled collaboration is as curious and opaquely formal as the mycological field manual that makes up its artwork; on another, it self-consciously plays with its raw materials, allowing the duo to partake in the anonymous humanism of tradition while grafting their own interests onto it. The duo’s light touch creates an indigenous aesthetic that develops in a near-linear fashion across the album, only hitting a snag on the uncharacteristically cloying “Zeranium.”
The album’s common thread — a sort of Wicker Man-esque pan-paganism — is a haunting one that wouldn’t have emerged as powerfully in either’s work on its own. It’s the album’s calling card at a time when "folk" has lost most of its historical specificity: a sense of a natural order that’s just out of reach, obscure, powerful, but ultimately serene.