A deliciously dark Christmas treat
iamthemorning are a Russian chamber prog duo consisting of Gleb Kolyadin on piano and Marjana Semkina on vocals. According to their Bandcamp web page they specialise in writing songs about ‘dead Victorian girls and premature burials’. Their last album The Bell was inspired by 19th century song cycles in the style of Schubert, and drew themes from Victorian art and culture. The title of the album referred to the safety coffin which allowed anyone who had accidentally been buried prematurely to alert those above ground by ringing a bell which
‘when the poor soul awoke and on realizing he’s been buried alive, could ring to let the people outside know what has happened‘ (from the band’s website).
iamthemorning have also released the albums Belighted, Lighthouse and Ocean Sounds (with a DVD filmed in a studio on a remote Norwegian island), all on the Kscope label.
The duo have now released a Christmas-themed EP, Counting the Ghosts, which consists of four tracks. It was recorded in lockdown with Marjana in England, Gleb in Russia, and their sound engineer (and guitarist on this EP) in Canada.
The first track I Wonder as I Wander was written in 1933 by John Jacob Niles, based on a fragment of traditional song he collected in Cherokee County, North Carolina, and published in his ‘Songs of the Hill-Folk’ in 1934. It has become a Christmas carol, and there is a lovely arrangement by John Rutter in ‘100 Carols for Choirs’ for solo voice and unaccompanied choir. The arrangement on this EP is beautiful, with Marjana’s wistful, folky vocals multi-tracked to provide the vocal harmonies, with subtle instruments coming in towards the end.
Cradle Song is the first of two songs written specially for the EP. Marjana told Prog magazine that the words are based on the poem of the same name by William Blake, which is not a Christmas poem but has in her view ‘a nice, cosy feeling’,
Sweet dreams, form a shade
O'er my lovely infant's head!
Sweet dreams of pleasant streams
By happy, silent, moony beams!
from Songs of Innocence: A Cradle Song
Presumably she was referring to the version of the poem in Blake’s Songs of Innocence, quoted above; the poem of the same name in Songs of Experience is much more cynical about the sleeping baby,
O the cunning wiles that creep
In thy little heart asleep!
When thy little heart doth wake,
Then the dreadful light shall break.
from Songs of Experience: A Cradle Song
The song starts gently enough, but soon takes a dark turn just over 30 seconds in , with a deliciously bleak key change, creating the sense that all is not well around the cradle, a gloomy tale to warm up Christmas around the fire like a ghost story.
The third track on the EP, Counting the Ghosts starts with ambiguous chords on the guitar and piano, immediately creating a sense of unease which is appropriate for a song that is about the ghosts of our Christmas past, and also about the people that have been lost during this tragic year. Marjana sings with fierce passion, revealing the depth of her feeling about a year that most of us would like to forget. The track ends suddenly, as if it has run out of things to say about 2020.
The final track Veni, Veni Emmanuel is a modern version of a very old carol, with Latin words that date back to around the eighth century, and a simple plainsong melody which dates back to around the twelfth or thirteenth century. Marjana sings the carol unaccompanied and in Latin, beginning with the first verse which is the melody alone and gradually adding more and more harmonies in another charming arrangement, ideally suited to her pure, crystalline voice. The heavy use of echo gives the recording a wintry feel, somehow appropriate to a singer who describes herself (on Twitter) as a ‘dead Victorian girl’.
Previous albums by iamthemorning have combined fine musicianship from Gleb with precise but soulful vocals from Marjana; there is always something deeper lurking in the shadows beneath the attractive surface of their songs. Counting the Ghosts continues in this vein, but adds a little Christmas spirit. It’s a real treat.
Counting the Ghosts is released on 4 December via Bandcamp.