A Ten Song Introduction To Freak Folk Music

From 70s cult horror soundtracks to Bahamian spiritual music, Freak Folk is less a genre and more a loosely defined grouping of artists who explore the furthest stellar reaches of what can be called ‘Folk’ music. It includes some of the most affecting, explorative and unashamedly weird music ever recorded with acoustic guitars (and on occasion without them too). With this list, Owen White provides a set of excellent entry points for those who are interested in taking a little walk on the wild side.

1. Exuma, The Obeah Man - Exuma

Listening to Exuma, it’s difficult to shake the feeling that he simply appeared one stormy night riding on a lightning bolt, fully formed, just as described in opening track of his debut album and de facto origin story: Exuma, The Obeah Man. His trademark blend of Bahamian traditional music (most notably calypso, carnival and junkanoo), a DIY approach and his fevered vocals is already fully present here and perfectly incorporated into his unique sonic language. It’s a brilliant demonstration of his elastic voice, which jumps nimbly between crazed caterwauling and hushed incantations, and his gloriously jaunty compositional style, with a heavy incorporation of group vocals, hypnotic chord loops and oddball sound effects/field recordings. His first record remains a definitive document of Freak Folk and a vital listen for anyone interested in folk music that doesn’t draw from the same anglicised reference points abused in most western Folk (pastoral primitivism, pagan mythology, rustic arpeggios etc) - and those simply interested in boundary pushing sonics.

2. Winter’s Love - Animal Collective

Animal Collective occupied a truly singular space in indie music for much of the 2000s. Too aggressively weird and deliberately inaccessible for the flannel adorned NPR crowd who formed the target demographic of contemporaries like The Dirty Projectors. They had a reputation for chameleonic reinvention between albums and for making music that, while not necessarily ever deliberately confrontational, was unafraid to step on the toes of musical convention and occasionally the ears of a few unexpecting listeners. It should come as no surprise then that when they donned acoustic guitars for 2006’s Sung Tongs they really put the 'Freak' in Freak Folk. Winters Love is a stunning summary of the strengths of that album. It less begins and more so wafts in on a breeze of washed-out acoustic guitars and warbled non-verbal melodies reeking of pine forests and lost youth. By the time the song begins in earnest almost a minute in, you’ll already either be totally content getting lost in the bands primeval dream world or be scrabbling for the exit. Don’t, however, let the otherworldly atmosphere and homespun experimentalism lead you to accusations of gimmickry; this track is packed with mind-bending rhythmic interplay and harmonies that’d make The Beatles blush. Above all else though, it’s fun. It’s really difficult to ever feel bad listening to a quality Animal Collective track because it’s obvious how much joy went into its creation.

3. Gently Johnny - Magnet

When initially commissioned to compose the now celebrated score for 1973 cult horror classic The Wicker Man, American actor and musician Paul Giovanni first carefully studied oral Folk traditions of both England and Scotland. This quality is immediately apparent on hearing the resulting soundtrack. These songs feel like true relics from a mystical pre-analogue age when the world was much bigger, and we were much smaller. It’s no surprise then that it became one of the most important founding documents of Freak Folk. Nowhere is this arcane beauty better captured then on stunning ballad Gently Johnny. Brimming with sinister eroticism, it twins music that recalls a bygone era with lyrics of wild promiscuity that feel offputtingly contemporary, not to mention just generally off-putting. Lovely weeping melodies fill out the track over the course of its runtime, as gradually an entire chorus of voices join. By the conclusion it truly feels like you’ve stumbled into some kind of ominous occult ritual. Something you weren’t supposed to see and are more than a little discomforted by, but equally find yourself unable to break free from the spell of.

4. Glow Worms - Vashti Bunyan

Legendary underground songstress Vashti Bunyan burst onto and unprepared English folk scene in 1970 with a quaint and quiet sound and, somehow, an even quainter and quieter voice. While listeners at the time were completely unprepared for a sound as wholly unique as Bunyan’s, leading to abysmal record sales, her work has since become hugely influential in certain stranger corners of contemporary Folk music. Many key tenets of her style have since become inseparable from the form of much contemporary Freak Folk: a hushed vocal delivery, pastoral imagery and a heavy propensity towards whimsy. Glow Worms is as excellent an introduction as any to the cosy dreamlike beauty in her forgotten worlds. Each warm note in its cyclical arpeggios gradually enfolds your mind in fuzzy layers of comfort, the aural equivalent of a baby being swaddled. From there Bunyan’s delicate whisper beckons you deeper and deeper into the woods until you’re totally lost in her land of the eternal golden hour. It’s a fragile instrument that seems at all times to dance alluringly upon the brink of oblivion, as it casts. Bunyan deftly wields every instrument at her disposal in pursuit of her singular vision, thoughtfully layering the canvas with deep golden hues until she conjures a landscape of quiet tranquil beauty.

5. Untitled Love Song - Angels Of Light

By the time the 90s were drawing to close, underground titan Michael Gira was getting tired. He’d been producing some of the most visceral and boundary pushing music around for well over a decade by that point. This culminated with him dissolving the band after their two and a half hour ’96 opus Soundtracks For The Blind. For a very brief while after this he seemed content to tinker with low stakes side projects, taking a well-earned break from producing ‘big’ works. When he returned in ’98 with Angels Of Light it came as a shock to many that after devoting his career up until that point to pushing listeners minds and bodies to the brink he was back with an entirely different objective: touching their hearts and souls. Untitled Love Song, the beating open heart of the band's masterpiece How I Loved You is not only one of the scarce few true blue love songs Gira ever penned but also just so happens to be amongst the finest ever penned by anybody. Gira’s deep baritone roar oft used to enchant and terrify during his tenure with Swans is here softened to a tender croon that disarms with authentic vulnerability, as he and an angelic female vocal coo lyrics of eternal devotion and fond recollection. Opening on the humble strum of a lone ukulele the arrangement quickly builds out into a vast ocean of twinkling vibraphones, layers of ornate guitar and interweaving accordion drones than somehow never clash for space and each provide a vital piece to the track’s majestic whole.

6. I’ll Be On The Water - Akron/Family

After listening to any amount of Akron/Family you won’t be surprised to learn they began as proteges to the above-mentioned Michael Gira during his Angels Of Light era, even eventually becoming the backing band for the Angels of Light project themselves. All the hallmarks of any Gira-adjacent project can be found in their self-titled debut - in fact, his fingerprints are so thoroughly caked over the album you can still smell the sweat and brimstone. Queasy atmospherics and primitive spirituality? Check. Sounds and lyrical concepts that seem to have been combed straight from the primordial soup of consciousness? Yep. Still, the band undeniably bring their own spin to the orchestrated Freak Folk sound pioneered by the Angels Of Light with greater interest in playing with pop song structures. I’ll Be On The Water is a mesmerising highpoint off their debut and a perfect summary of their strengths as a band. A gentle hypnotic guitar melody populates much of the track and feels immediately like one of those simple and profound fragments of music that’s always existed and was simply waiting to be written. Before that guitar line’s even done firmly burrowing its way into the deepest recesses of your subconscious, a sensuous lead vocal joins sung with enough aching melancholy and restrained passion to fill an entire gothic novel. The song has a single mantra-like verse that’s repeated twice, with a double tracked guitar filling out the mix and giving the track a rewarding sense of progression. By the time the guitars drop out entirely in lieu of a flurry of insane synths and sound effects you’ll be thoroughly enthralled.

7. Santa Maria da Feira - Devendra Banhart

Something of a forgotten titan of the early 2000s Freak Folk revival, and of the indie scene of the time more generally, it would still be amiss to not include Banhart despite the waning of his acclaim and influence in the past few years thanks to his indispensable contribution to the scene. He played a key role in the style’s reinvigoration around the turn of the millennium scoring huge critical acclaim and underground success through his work on Gira’s Young God record label as well as his many fruitful collaborations with important artists within the scene. I don’t have much to say about him or this track honestly, due to his music never having really connected with me on a personal level, but Santa Maria da Feira is undeniably as pretty as Freak Folk songs come. His work his well worth checking out if you have even a passing interest in the genre.

8. Diana - Comus

Comus are one of those few bands who make you do a double take upon first discovery; their music is simply too weird to be real. 70s British prog-folk with carnal vocals that often sound like they’re being sung by evil goblins, eerie lyrics about electroconvulsive therapy and a plethora of weird and wonderful instruments not oft found in folk music including but not limited to: oboes, electric bass and fucking bongos? Sounds fake but yes please. Anchored by some delightfully nimble electric bass work, the band deliver an impressive mission statement on Diana. Demonstrating their insane degree of dynamism, they jump effortlessly between several tonally distinct passages never once letting up on the deranged theatricality, performances that’re both gorgeous as well as virtuosic and along the way they even find time to include a thrilling solo by the aforementioned bongos. Much like the narrative delivered in its lyrics, the song gives the vivid impression of being lost in a forest both dark and ancient, amongst beings even darker and more ancient. Comus don’t make music for everyone and if their grisly woodland rituals don’t appeal to you that’s fair enough. They manage one impressive feat with the musical artform I don’t think anyone can deny though: creating an article that’s wholly unique and without comparison.

9. Lorca - Tim Buckley

Lorca, the nine-minute titled track off folk singer Tim Buckley’s batshit insane fifth album occupies a truly baffling spot in his discography. Up until this point, he had scored some commercial success and more recently heavy critical acclaim with his increasingly artsy folk style records. While subsequent Buckley masterpiece Starsailor would move towards a move diverse, jazz-oriented sound, Lorca remains, for the most part, firmly in this old folk wheelhouse. It reaches, however, for something darker, stranger and more expressive than he or any of his contemporaries had previously dared to try. Sitting on the intersection of a crossroad of dissonant free jazz, troubadour folk storytelling and avant-garde sound play Lorca, while not traditionally considered Freak Folk, is about as freaky as Folk music gets. The track is centred around a brief descending chromatic line that loops for the full nine minutes, giving the whole proceedings an oppressive funeral procession feel and providing Buckley with plenty of room to experiment with texture and the limitations of the human voice. Like his more well known son Jeff, Tim Buckley had a truly astonishing voice that stretched at least four octaves with a formidably controlled vibrato and a thorough mastery of tone. This is put on full display across the length of Lorca as Tim contorts his voice into shapes few have ever even dreamed of. Jumping confidently between long strangled howls that quiver like leaves in breeze and impossibly gentle murmuring he redefines the idea of the human voice as an instrument. Below this carnage he and the band conjure an eerie soundscape with creeping keys, disquieting organ drones and evocative improvisation.

10. Octopus - Syd Barrett

Before closing out this list, I would be doing it a disservice if I didn’t pay tribute to another of of Freak Folk’s other vital early pioneers. After he was unceremoniously dropped from Pink Floyd, Syd Barrett release two excellent solo records before slipping away from the public eye entirely. Octopus is a fantastic cut from this period replete with his free associative poetry full of fairy-tale images and nightmarish distortions. Underneath, passionately strummed acoustic chords chug along to rickety grooves that seem to evolve and pulsate as they’re being played. It’s clear throughout the track that Barrett never really lost his ear for stunningly original chord progressions and a good pop hook. It’s a thrilling and wholly original approach to song writing, not to mention shockingly catchy all things considered. While his connection to Freak Folk is largely tangential, I still feel his madcap song writing and twisted fables have been influential enough on the weird folk music produced by generations of outsiders over the past half a century to be essential listening. I also highly suggest checking out the truly bizarre version he recorded with legendary jazz-fusion group Soft Machine off the Opel compilation, if you think you have the stomach for it.

Listen to all of the tracks included in this article, plus many more, on this Spotify playlist:

Written by: Owen White

Edited by: Gemma Cockrell

Featured image courtesy of Exuma, The Obeah Man via Facebook.