For those who are unfamiliar with the British folk music scene The Unthanks are a five-piece folk group led by sisters Rachel and Becky Unthank. The band was formed in 2004 as an all female group called Rachel Unthank and the Winterset. After lineup changes that brought Adrian McNally into the band as pianist, arranger, producer and manager the name was shortened to The Unthanks.
They perform mainly traditional English folk songs. The credits for their second album, The Bairns, list Rachel’s contributions as voice, cello, ukulele and feet, the latter being a reference to the sound of clog dancing which formed part of their live act. So, you see, we are deep in folk music country here, but The Unthanks frequently flirt with other musical genres, too, and that is what qualifies them for inclusion in the Crotchety Man pages.
For my Track of the Week I have chosen Starless from The Unthank‘s 2011 album Last.
A gentle violin and piano introduction leads into a haunting trumpet melody. Reflected in the trumpet’s shining brass we see a dark brooding landscape lit only by the faint glow of moonbeams filtering through a charcoal sky. Any stars have been suffocated under a thick blanket of low cloud. The night cloaks the scene in a bible black shroud. On the Earthly plane we are alone; in spirit we share this god-forsaken place with the ghost of a brass band soloist.
As if wakened by the trumpeter’s song the black treacle voices of the Unthank sisters take up the story. Somewhere beyond the horizon a brilliant sun is setting but it is hidden by a curtain of doubt and despair.
Sundown dazzling day
Gold through my eyes
But my eyes turned within
Starless and bible black
Spectral figures drift across our vision and the soulful sounds of a chamber orchestra emphasise the bleakness of our inward gaze. Listen. That is the sound of Churchill’s black dog stalking the night.
The Unthanks have taken a modern folk song and given it a wonderfully atmospheric orchestral arrangement. Or so it would seem. But Starless was not conceived as a folk song. It was originally intended as the title track of King Crimson‘s Starless and Bible Black album released in March 1974.
The lyrics and melody were written by John Wetton, King Crimson‘s then bassist, but Robert Fripp and Bill Bruford didn’t like it and the title was used for an unrelated instrumental on that album. When the original song was subsequently revised and revived for King Crimson‘s next album, Red, it was given the shorter title of Starless. By this time David Cross had left the band and the melody that he would have played on his electric violin was switched to Robert Fripp’s guitar. Even in 1974, several decades before The Unthanks rearranged it again, the melody line had jumped like a dancing will-o’-the-wisp from one instrument to another.
Starless is still performed by King Crimson. In their hands it is a sweeping progressive rock track with passages in 13/4 and 13/8 time. Here’s a live version from 2015 that is included on their latest album Radical Action to Unseat the Hold of Monkey Mind. It still has that haunting melody but this rendition builds to a frantic climax propelled irresistibly forward by KC’s three drummers. Watch and marvel!
Whichever way you slice it, orchestral folk or progressive rock, Starless is a truly great track that will haunt you long after Hallowe’en. There is no trick. It is a treat to be savoured. Especially when the black dog comes stalking and dark thoughts rise from the mists of the subconscious monkey mind.