With her new solo album, Birthmarks, due out in March, the former JJ72 bassist explains why the gothic soundtrack to a 1970s Czech horror film made such an enduring impression…

Hilary Woods

Ten years ago, I got my first record player. The speakers were 1980s hi-fi creatures that I rescued from a local skip. The turntable itself was a present from a friend, who recognised that after hauling my music from rented flat to rented flat for some years, it was possibly time to find a home in how I listened to my records as opposed to where they were being stored. I grew up without a telly but surrounded by vinyl. My parents’ record collection spanned from releases by Elvis, The Shangri-Las, Irish tenor John McCormack and arias by Maria Callas, to umpteen classical records, particularly piano collections by Chopin, Rachmaninoff and Bach. Then there was Sinatra, Louis Armstrong, Deanna Durbin, Nina Simone – spanning to my older brother’s Nine Inch Nails collection, Iron Maiden, Irish ballads and airs and a selection of Gregorian chants. The family’s box of vinyl seemed to expand every time I went to look inside. These records were treated with reverence. I’d sit there for hours watching the needle hit the groove, polishing any records that had scratches on them.

The task of choosing one record that stands out as a favourite for the purposes of this article is difficult, but one that has made a particular impact on me in recent years is Luboš Fišer’s soundtrack to Jaromil Jireš’ 1970s psych Czech surrealist horror film Valerie And Her Week Of Wonders, based on VÍtězslav Nezval’s novel of the same name from 1935. The record was released on Finders Keepers in 2006 and consists of 23 tracks. The entire album is hypnotising and heavily influenced by European folk and early sacred music.

valerie and her week of wonders ostIt is a rare gem and feels like a sonic arthouse filmic poem. From the opening track, The Magic Yard, through to The Sermon and The Visit, there are gothic, wondrous and liturgical undertones to the pieces that all have a distinct pastoral origin. There are also musical motifs throughout the record that repeat themselves many times and further cultivate a cohesive ambience of ritual, worship, wonder and trance-like psychedelic atmospherics. Fišer uses a lot of early instrumentation; harpsichord, horns, lutes, lyres, bells, and employs singing techniques like recitative, syllabic and plainchant monophonic instrumentals and unaccompanied unison singing, repetition and drone, together with cadential and melodic structures based on early pentatonic scales.

There is a simplicity and purity to a lot of the tracks, while simultaneously they are all richly evocative and echo each other in mood. Tracks such as Homeless and Confession stand out for their lush, striking and dramatic colour. There is an economy to this record that I love. Each track is a miniature scene or stanza interweaving and progressing from the last, albeit all crafted from similar ingredients. The record’s inimitable magic lies in the fact that it cross pollinates both sonically and in its visual, conjuring a fairy-tale surrealist landscape that has a dark underbelly.

Reminiscent of The Wicker Man, it has a distinct cult-like quality, and sits on the shelf next to other 1970s psych-folk records like Linda Perhacs’ Parallelograms, Sibylle Baier’s The Colour Green and Wendy and Bonnie’s Genesis. It is also a record that speaks volumes to more contemporary records from the likes of Modern Nature and Moon Duo, and resonates heavily with earlier music that I grew up with by the likes of Palestrina, Tallis and Hildegard Von Bingen, as well as drone and electro-acoustic contemporary inspirational outpourings from Áine O’Dwyer and Sarah Davachi. Fišer’s work touches on threads running through all of the above records. Its hallucinogenic, trance-like quality and folk horror beauty stays with you. To hear and have it on vinyl, is a gift.

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