Wednesday, 30 October 2019

MUSIC REVIEW: The Unthanks - HOME, Manchester


The Unthanks must surely be the gold standard of contemporary folk and so the band’s stunning and somewhat esoteric new project still sees Manchester’s HOME’s packed to the rafters with a sense of expectation in the air to experience what is mostly unheard work. Three cycles of songs written from real historical women’s perspectives have been released and tonight’s – Volume Three - sees ten of Emily Brontë’s poems performed. (The other two cycles being from female First World War writers and Hull fishing worker Lillian Bilocca). The Unthanks chose the poems that held the most meaning for them and were commissioned by the Brontë Society to produce the songs to commemorate the 200th anniversary of Emily’ birth.

Only one of Brontë s poems was published in her lifetime (Remembrance) and the project creates a unique opportunity for those new to her work to experience it in a contemporary, accessible way. The performance re-vivified these largely neglected works and added new depth and poignancy to the words: I wanted to go away immediately afterwards and find the poetry collection. A stripped down set - just Becky and Rachel on vocals and composer/arranger Adrian McNally on piano - forced the words to take centre stage.

You can see the appeal & connection of The Unthanks for the Bront√ęs; famous sisters with gloomy, often Gothic, melancholy preoccupations, and Emily’s fragility, dark emotion and obsession with the wild moorland landscape is evident in titles such as 'The Night Is Darkening Around Me' and 'Deep Deep Down In The Silent Grave'.

What is breathtaking about these songs is how the musical arrangement both makes these songs soar and gives them emotional gravitas. Dressed in grey at his Steinway & flanked by the scarlet attired sisters who are normally the focus of the performances, McNally comes into his own. His arrangements are delicate, atmospheric and tear-inducing, gently giving the poetry space to breathe - and the songs were composed by McNally on Emily’s actual piano in the Brontë Parsonage in Haworth. Immediately arresting and beautiful, the layers of words and the hypnotic repetitive chords, notes and harmonies create an instant emotional resonance. My face was wet with tears by about the fourth song. (The woman sitting next to me looked concerned).

There’s a purity and urgency to these songs; they feel essential & seem to connect directly with the soul. We get Emily, full force. These are songs to savour, to give your full attention to and to resolutely love. And The Unthanks, thankfully, just can’t seem to put a foot wrong.

Reviewer - Tracy Ryan
on - 19/10/19

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