Justin Hopper & Sharron Kraus
So much of what we love about Ghost Box is encapsulated here, on this supremely evocative piece of psychogeographic storytelling. Based around the rich, self-narrated poetry and prose of American writer Justin Hopper, it tells the part-supernatural folk tale of his experiences at Chanctonbury Rings, an Iron Age hillfort on the Sussex Downs.
The wyrd-folk eeriness and electro-acoustic atmospherics of the main thrust of this beautifully sequenced tale, which reaches its expositional peak on the wonderful ‘Layers’, is brilliantly counterpoised by Belbury Poly’s signally 70s-evoking analogue synth, nostalgic tv theme quirk throughout – particularly on the titular theme tune. Perhaps the highlight though, is Sharron Kraus’ contribution on ‘The Wanderer’ and ‘Hal-an-Tow’.
Her imperious voice invokes the crystalline expressiveness of Annie Briggs and is, in tandem with this exceptional release, truly elevating. A poetic, outré fable to feed our fascination with the lore, myths and superstitions of ancient Albion and her enigmatic mysteries.
‘Chanctonbury Rings’ is an album of sensual spellcraft, narrated by Justin Hopper, with music from Sharron Kraus and The Belbury Poly. Gareth Thompson delves into the mystic.
With promotional events looming for his 2017 book, The Old Weird Albion, the writer Justin Hopper was feeling edgy. Bored with going to author readings where nothing happened in terms of a performance, Hopper asked the psych-folk musician Sharron Kraus to compose some backing music for him. He sent Kraus the ‘Levitations’ section of his book which deals with cryptic events at Chanctonbury Ring, a darksome copse on the Sussex Downs. Hopper recalls that things soon changed from ten minutes of music, to a full show based on that chapter: ‘Sharron made it so she could perform the various parts alone, with just herself and a guitar, alongside synth, dulcimer, loop pedals; the whole set up.’
At this point, enter Jim Jupp and Julian House of Ghost Box Records, who attended a recital of the show in Steyning, close to Chanctonbury. Jupp says, ‘The live performance had a very emotional impact that’s hard to describe. It’s about a haunting, but it’s not a ghost story. It’s about the landscape, but it’s not the world of nature writing that’s currently popular. It’s more to do with memory and the circularity of things. Even though it builds on an eerie atmosphere, it’s very uplifting and moving.’
A big fan of Ghost Box as an artistic and holistic project, Hopper grasped their offer to record his new venture. The label’s involvement also meant that Kraus had a musical foil in Jupp, aka folk-tronica artist Belbury Poly. ‘My role,’ says Jupp, ‘was to turn a live performance work, with no strict timings and cues, into an album. Starting from a rough guide track recorded on Justin’s phone, alongside Sharron’s early demos, we built a skeleton for the music and sound effects. This was gradually re-recorded in the studio.’
Kraus describes her writing process for the project as very instinctive: ‘Justin initially sent me the text and I felt the stirrings of my musical imagination. I recorded a handful of sound sketches and sent them to Justin who liked how they were going. By the time of the first performance we’d spent a day together, making sure the music sections fitted the text.’
The full dose of Chanctonbury Rings induces a kind of sacred tipsiness. As if freed from inhibition the listener feels active in this album’s rituals, not just observant. Hymnal synths, pagan piping and hushed chorals act like a series of mantras to highlight the narrative. Hopper venerates each word, his voice like an instrument itself ranging from breathy to bright. As the sonic atmospheres build, you sense a thickening of the world where fact and reason vanish.
Hopper’s prose is so evocative that any backing might seem surplus, but the soundtrack here is sensitive not invasive. American by birth, Hopper admits he gets choked up over the composition that’s named after his grandmother, Winnie, a key figure in his relationship to England. ‘Sharron really dug in and wrote this profound music to not just accompany my words, but to reinforce and reinterpret them’ he says.
‘Chanctonbury Rings (Intro)’ opens the record with Hopper’s enticing line, ‘Time had gone soft at the crossroads… and let me tell you how’. This heralds a synth swirl and tingle that’s almost apparitional, whilst elsewhere much fun lies in detecting the various implements used. Kraus explains there’s actually no guitar on the album, except for Nick Jonah Davis playing electric and slide on ‘Wanderer’. The hallowed chords on ‘Layers’ and ‘Wanderer’ come from an open-tuned dulcimer, wherein Kraus strikes the instrument’s body like someone rapping a coffin lid.
Ghostly exhales and buzzy drones on ‘Breath’ were created by Kraus layering bamboo flute, vocal noises and percussion, with Jupp adding extra elements. The close-mic’d crackling from a box of dried leaves adds a hair-raising creepiness. ‘Bonny Breast Knot’ then conjures an impish galliard that high steps into a full country dance. It’s one of several pieces to feature Kraus on recorder, an instrument she disliked playing at school, until early music helped her ‘fall in love with the recorder’s sweet woody tone. It sounds so birdlike. I mostly play an alto, but there’s some descant on the album too.’
Jupp describes the microKORG used by Kraus as a ‘wonderful and massively underrated little synth’. It conjures bestial riffs on ‘The Devil And St. Dunstan’ where Jupp adds Mellotron and tape echo feedback. ‘Outside The Ring’ has electronics and woodwind together, with Jupp’s input being a woozy degraded sample of a Mellotron bell. Jupp says this number follows a common theme in his work, where time seems out of joint and archaic notions are re-framed in a modern way. (He adds that this may be a dated modernism in itself).
Further insight into Jupp’s ethos comes on ‘Chanctonbury Rings (End Title)’. A piece of courtly pomp with triumphal notes, Jupp says he wanted to capture an instant sense of English pastoralism, with a slow rise and fall to echo the Downs landscape. ‘Hopefully it’s slightly sinister, but lilting into the joyful,’ he says. ‘But like a radio theme I wanted it to be anthemic and plain old catchy too.’
The drama closes with Kraus performing the festive song ‘Hal-an-Tow’ in traditional style, her voice aglow like a woodland spirit’s. The tune reflects a May morning ritual attended by Hopper, but like an outsider within Chanctonbury’s symbolic rings, he then departs quietly: ‘I slipped away – no one knew me, no one noticed me leave. I skipped down the hillside, along tapering tracks. And like that, the calendar had turned. It was summer.’
Caught by The River
Pagan radiophonica meets medieval balladry on an intriguing spoken word project.
This latest release from Ghost Box epitomises the label’s guiding principle of “the past inside the present”, time as perpetual reoccurrence rather than a linear continuum. Justin Hopper is a writer and performer whose psychogeographical memoir “The Old Weird Albion” forms the basis of the album. With modern folk artist Sharron Kraus and Jim Jupp’s Belbury Poly providing electro-acoustic backing, Hopper describes visions of his dead grandmother levitating, recounts a childhood out-of-the-body experience, and tells the story of how the Devil tried to destroy Sussex. It seems odd at first to hear the American Hopper talking about quintessentially British subjects, but his narrative soon becomes another uncanny element in the album’s sound-world. The title track is a classic slice of mock-orchestral synthesis from Jupp, Wendy Carlos meets Schools TV, while Layers features the dank rattle of an ancient lute. Kraus uses her voice to wordless, ghostly effect on tracks such as “Breath” – like something from an obscure Hammer Films horror -but delivers a luminous Sandy Denny-esque vocal on Wanderer.
Justin Hopper, Sharron Kraus and Belbury Poly have brought the thinnest of places to vivid life in this oddly comforting avant-garde wonder.
Robert Macfarlane relates an evening spent alone at Chanctonbury Ring on the South Downs in his book The Old Ways. After falling into a “senseless sleep” he is abruptly awoken later on. “I heard the first scream at around two o’clock in the morning. A high-pitched and human cry, protracted but falling away in its closing phase.” Another cry joins the first, with both moving towards him, albeit at treetop level. This continues for fifteen minutes and then stops. Macfarlane “eventually, uneasily” goes back to sleep.
That he has the self-control to lie there, instead of leaping up and running away as fast as he can, suggests he must be made of sterner stuff than most folks. This is, in his telling, the type of haunting I encountered in a Reader’s Digest book of ghost sightings that frightened me to my core as a child. Spine-tingling, most assuredly. Terrifying, I think so. What it doesn’t do, however, is haunt in the same manner or to the same extent as Justin Hopper’s conjuring of the same place, drifting through time as it intersects with his own past. Hopper is a reliable narrator who happens to be reporting from a haunted world indistinguishable from fiction.
Chanctonbury Rings was born out of spoken word performances of Hopper’s beautifully written and moving work of poetic psychogeography, The Old Weird Albion. Joined by folk alchemist Sharron Kraus and Ghost Box’s own warmly uncanny Belbury Poly, this audio manifestation of Hopper’s exploration of Chanctonbury Ring is an LP for the ages; an oddly comforting avant-garde masterpiece. It’s a heady mix of spoken word, poetry and song, where off-kilter electronic excursions meet deep-rooted folk invocations and the landscape is translated into mystical musical passages. Put the record on and it’s as if you are pushing open a moss-covered stone door, then stepping over the threshold into an antechamber that transforms into the South Downs. The world building is brimming with life – whether it’s Kraus’s breath creating an ever-more-enveloping soundscape, Belbury Poly’s Albion analogue theme which bookends the LP or Hopper’s steady narrator navigating visions of his dead grandmother – and indeed death.
It begins in what could be ominous fashion, but is strangely inviting instead. “Time had gone soft at the Crossroads,” intones Hopper, “and let me tell you how.” Belbury Poly’s “Chanctonbury Rings (Intro)” then carves a passage into a narrative as still and immersive as the virtual reality unconscious dreaming of Christopher Priest’s A Dream of Wessex. Storytelling as an audio experience can – under certain conditions – offer a sensory experience unlike any other and make no mistake, Chanctonbury Rings is a richly evocative narrative of the highest order. The Story Teller cassette series I listened to as a child springs to mind, an almost olfactory recall. Although I now reimagine those tapes populated with Sharron Kraus and Belbury Poly’s music out of time, and Hopper’s narration throughout.
Kraus’s voice emerges out of mists on “The Thinnest Place”, nudging analogue electronics from pagan Britain up and around Hopper’s words. It’s where he gives context, allows the listener access to the cartography of his mind: “Chanctonbury Ring is the thin place on my map. That place where another world peeks through. It’s where I go to believe, to remember that I can believe.” Local legend, myth, allegory – it all bleeds through the present and Hopper sifts through it to deliver a personal narrative rich in reference.
The record is haunted by visions of Hopper’s grandmother Winnie. She was so full of life and such a key figure in his, that she is alive to him still. His evocations of Winnie are delightful and believable; grounded in the reality of memory, immune from terror. Hopper makes us consider our own dead. My father died a little over twenty years ago and I’ve sometimes wondered how I would deal with encountering his apparition. Yet I always answer my own question, confident I am to be spared such a vision. Hopper haunts us with the notion that ghosts are of course embedded in the everyday. “I don’t often see the dead”, he says on “Breath”, as matter of fact as you like. “Certainly no more than anyone else. Because we all see the dead sometimes, don’t we? Waiting on a cloud-darkened bench. Or passing by us on a side street. Or fumbling for their keys in the hallway.” “Breath” is hauntology raised from the dead, emanating from barrows. Kraus becomes a spectral multitude as she breathes into the microphone, amongst environmental sounds sourced from deep time, to craft a world in a song as haunting as A Warning to the Curious was on television.
There’s a lovely moment where Morris Men gather to dance in the May at Chanctonbury and Hopper watches along with other assorted onlookers, a tourist to old rites. Hopper’s outsiderness as an American allows him degrees of impartiality. He even references William Burroughs and Fear and Loathing in The Old Weird Albion (yet not on the record) which suggests unexpected connections that nonetheless feel right. Hopper is linked to Sussex through his family, and visits to Chanctonbury Ring with his grandmother played a vital role in his formative years. His viewpoint is therefore both looking in and looking out, the plurality of the LP title’s “rings” echoing the different spheres of his existence.
Chanctonbury Rings stands up alongside that BBC Schools Drama Workshop album – and hauntological touchstone – The Seasons. Justin Hopper’s delivery is however miles away from Robert Duncan’s stern enunciation of crisply arcane material and the music by Sharron Kraus and Belbury Poly is less ornately avant-garde. For The Seasons is an ancestor to rather than template for Chanctonbury Rings. Each is their own peculiar and intoxicating work of inimitable art. If only the children of today and tomorrow could be encouraged to express themselves through movement and dance to Ghost Box number 33. For Chanctonbury Rings encourages magic to occur. Magic to think, breathe and dream more. The campaign to have it installed in assembly halls and played in primary schools across the country begins here.