The Heartwood Institute creates memorable hauntological radiophonic doom-synth library folk music wherein traditional instruments from autoharp to zither are warped beyond identification, and blended into a barrage of synths and samplers, with film dialogue and nature sounds sprinkled in. Witchcraft is the subject matter of Pendle, and the album has a suitably spellbinding atmosphere, albeit one with the sense to emphasize grime and poverty. That's not to say there are not layers of sound which suggest cloudy pseudo-romantic myth, misty obscurity, and even smoke billowing up from a hexastein into some corridor of eternal purgatorial uncertainty where no one can hear your appeals for help, your moans or wails.
Mist Over Pendle is music inspired by the book of that name by Robert Neill and both are depictions of the events around the Pendle witch trials of 1622; amongst the most infamous such trials in English history. The album has an appropriately eerie density. We hear crows cawing, muffled human cries, incantations, repetitive electronic thuds, the occasional eye scratching curse and air cracking screech, foreboding synths, brooks not so much babbling as blabbing confessions during a water boarding session, and snippets of dialogue in archaic dialects lifted from an obscure 1976 television drama The Witches of Pendle.
Of the ten witches from Pendle who were eventually hanged, six came from just two families, so it is fitting that two tunes here are titled after the two octogenarian matriarchs of those—Demdike and Chattox—families. "Mother Demdike" is absolutely great, in particular the heavily distressed flute sample. The piece hits a bitter sweet spot, as does "Lancaster Assizes" named for the location of the trial (or assizes). "The Two Familiars" has a dark tone with submerged sounding piano and slurred sludge-like synchronized bass. The term "familiars" by the way refers to the devil himself or to evil spirit helpers of witches, often in animal form as a black or brown dog.
I believe that the opening piece "The Curse of Pendle" alludes in part to the religious and political backdrop to the Pendle case; including the fact that nine year-old Jennet Device was a key witness for the prosecution (something that would not have been permitted in many other 17th-century criminal trials had King James not argued for suspending the normal rules of evidence for witchcraft trials in his Daemonologie). Jennet's testimony sent her mother, sister and brother to their death, and years later she herself would be accused of witchcraft and imprisoned. Another song refers to the first victim, John Law, allegedly made lame for refusing to sell or give pins to Alison Device of the Demdike family. "Alice Nutter" also shows up, in a relatively humdrum piece (I would have liked even more sampled dialogue from the TV drama on this piece and throughout the entire album). To some extent the mists of time will always shroud this episode from English social history, but a picture has emerged of two families clashing, both desperate to make a living from begging, healing, extortion, and superstition; both willing and eager to accuse the other of witchcraft, and dooming themselves in the process. Back then there was money to be made by posing as a witch and also by threatening to expose witches. Both these families played with fire and got burned and even worse they unwittingly brought into being the accursed witchcraft- related tourism trade hundred of years later. There is even a statue of Alice Nutter now.
The Heartwood Institute is Jonathan Sharp, a prolific artist who lives in the Lake District and has clearly taken to heart the maxim "write about your own backyard." His previous works include "Calder Hall: Atomic Power Station" an album length musical ode to the world's first atomic power station, and the brilliant Hedges - inspired in part by the Ladybird book series. The cover art for Mist Over Pendle shows actress Cathryn Harrison as Alizon Device in the 1976 television program.