Review Summary: Sangre de Muerdago's latest opus sees them ascend to unprecedented heights as a more progressive and thoughtful band.
Hurdy gurdy, nickelharpa, viola and celtic harp: restrung and ready to go. The woodwinds are primed, carefully arranged in a line of elegant black cases, filled to the brim with a seemingly infinite supply of wild cane reeds. An age’s old classical guitar with strings hanging out of the headstock like gnarled branches, worn but animated leans against the wall. Ornate sheets of paper are scattered across the floor, awaiting their turn in the music box perched next to them. An ensemble of kind voices converges, conjuring ice wraiths and frost spirits to dance in the stale winter air. Songs of old resound in the lonely corridor, overflowing with excitement to reach the ears of the wildest reaches of Europe. All of a sudden, a death knell tolls, followed by another one and then another. News spreads like wildfire of a plague ravaging towns and cities far and wide. No, this scourge I speak of is not the Black Death or the Great Plague of Marseille, but the COVID19 Outbreak of 2020. Though tiktok challenges and netflix specials have largely taken precedence over art in recent memory, the old bardic songs still echo. Sangre de Muerdago are the modern day minstrels who sing these songs, taking the ancestral and ancient and injecting them in the most poetic way with new life and an intense beauty informed by the collective woe and joy of the 21st century.. Though their spring tour of Europe was unfortunately cancelled, Sangre de Muerdago were brave enough to unleash their new opus upon the world during this terribly difficult time when perhaps we need them the most.
The record commences with the heart wrenching “Cadelina”, a song written about bandleader Pablo’s dog Pippi who tragically passed away not too long ago. In the face of tragedy, artists more often than not turn to their art to project these feelings of grief and chagrin, to ultimately craft a bleak and downbeat oeuvre. That is not inherently a bad thing. Countless awe inspiring works have been created in this same fashion and from this gloomy worldview. What’s particularly potent about “Cadelina” is its rejection of this defeatist norm, in favor of something more nostalgic and sentimental. The song is a gorgeous remembrance of a beautiful animal that as is clear from the song possessed an immense wisdom that deeply touched the band and will go onto inspire listeners of this song for millenia to come. Through this unfathomably pretty piece of music, Pippi’s spirit lives on. However, like the “Mensaxeiros do Pasado” in their respective song, at the end of each listen Pippi must too bid us farewell. The absence of a harmonic resolution is a powerful reminder of this and as a listener I have teared up numerous times neath the insurmountable weight of this sonic realisation.
In my eyes, Sangre de Muerdago has never released anything that is less than stellar. Despite their career long excellence, It is worth mentioning that they, like any other band have followed a trajectory. This path the band is on, though less travelled and stricken with moss and weathered stone has seen the group getting better and better on each release. The main progression I have noticed on this new record is the unlocking of more complex and progressive composition. A comment I had heard when Alcest released their most recent record “Spiritual Instinct” is how on that record Alcest had went from being a band playing dreamy and foggy compositions to a band with more fully fledged and detailed songwriting. I would argue that Sangre de Muerdago sees the same progression on this new record. They are translating that intense and overpowering beauty into something more complex, meticulous and ornate. Like many of their forest folk contemporaries, Sangre still does make great use of strophic form, a musical form largely popularised in Lieder, a late 19th century classical musical styling featuring an intimate mix of dynamic piano, raconteuse voice and an outook largely inspired by romanticism which has also undoubtedly left a mark on the forest folk/neofolk scene. Though Sangre often does utilize strophic form as a jumping off point, the arrangements are more ornamented, springing with vibrant colors and flowery fractals. It is this rare attention to detail that really sets Sangre apart from the rest of their peers. Songs like the magnificent “Cancion de Berce” and the stunning “Coma una Bica” are largely indebted to this incredible nuance that Pablo Ursusson brings to the table as a composer. Furthermore, the songs on this album are almost crafted for repeated listening. Everytime, I listen to a song from Sangre de Muerdago (with this record in particular) I discover something new whether it be a playful trill from Erik Heimansberg’s virtuosic flute playing or a bedazzling gilded sweep from Asia Kindred Moore on the harp. There are not just worlds, but entire universes that exist within Sangre’s compositions. Songs such as the harrowing “Lonxania” and the album’s instrumental tracks are also glowing examples of this electrifying ascent that Sangre is taking on the road to becoming a more progressive band.
Another quality of Sangre’s music that has always spoken to me is the innate warmth and disarming kindness that their songs possess. Yes, Sangre de Muerdago does have their roots in Galicia, but I feel that with each release they are transforming into a band of the world, without borders or recorded tradition. The verdant rainforests and towering cliffs of Galicia still have their place in compositions such as the aforementioned “Lonxania” and the brumous “De Neboa and Choiva”. However, the emotions and themes that Sangre seems to be meditating on in this release are much more global. They are not the overly political type of band to point fingers at this and that establishment. Their music is purely productive and healing. The lines in “A Danza das Animas” (from their previous record “Noite” perfectly reflect Sangre’s attitude not just on this new record but across their entire career. Those lines read “I open my arms to you, we are the ones who will remain and fight on your side, embrace life, embrace death”. Whether they are tackling more morose or light subjects, Sangre always exudes this wonderful feeling of openness and acceptance, something that is not too common in the often patriotic and closed off folk scene. Sangre does write about struggles from back home, but this adversity is always presented through a more universal lens. For example, take “Lonxania” (a song already mentioned several times for its truly astounding composition). The song is about Pablo’s longing for Galicia and its wondrous wilderness, but the band graciously extends their hands and invites you as a listener to reflect on this same universal human experience, whether you be a refugee or from somewhere more politically stable. Another fantastic example of Sangre de Muerdago’s universal appeal is the instrumental tune “Maria Solina” which reflects on the intense solitude experienced by accused witches being put to death in Spain in the early 1600’s. Sangre de Muerdago are such experts at conveying strong emotions that they don’t even need to write lyrics for you to understand the profound loneliness of this song. Again, they invite you as a listener to channel this catharsis into your own life experience. This new record also sees Sangre breaking boundaries when it comes to the cross pollination of genre with the feature of Neurosis’ Steve Von Till on the pastoral “Xuntas”. Sangre de Muerdago has truly become this global entity. Their Galician and German roots still live on, but their compositions evoke such strong and relatable emotions that you can’t help but to join the conversation as a listener.
Sangre de Muerdago’s alchemical distillation of longing and saudades into sonic gold is nothing new. From Portugal’s Fado to Cape Verde’s Morna these sentiments have been cast into air since the dawn of music. However Sangre’s delicate and otherworldly approach to conveying these deep emotions is spellbinding and genius. 2020 may not be the optimal time to drop a record, but I’d argue that Sangre couldn’t have picked a better time to drop their latest masterpiece. This record has helped me to internalize the immense tragedy of 2020 and make something positive out of it all. Hopefully, for you it will do the same.