This latest collection from Folklore Tapes borrows its title from a Japanese proverb about knowing one's limitations ("the frog in the well knows nothing of the sea"), which was itself borrowed from a Chinese fable. In the context of an album devoted to UFO lore, of course, humans are the frogs, the infinite universe is the ocean, and the usual eclectic Folklore Tapes cast of characters gleefully devote themselves to celebrating the colorful hoaxes and stories of their countrymen who claim to have experienced a visit from extraterrestrial life. While alien visitations are admittedly a bit outside the usual realm of Folklore Tapes' research, I would be hard pressed to think of a roster of artists better suited to tackle the topic, as just about everyone involved brings a freewheeling playfulness to the theme and surprises abound. This is yet another characteristically brilliant and inspired compilation from the inimitable Folklore Tapes. Hell, it might even be their best yet.
As is the case with most major Folklore Tapes releases, this collection exists only in physical form, as music and scholarship are eternally intertwined for the label (the LP includes quite a comprehensive essay by Jez Winship, as well as artist notes about stories that inspired their individual pieces). Also as expected, the album's contributors are a welcome murderers' row of names that will likely be familiar only to those who have delved into previous Folklore Tapes collections. That said, the album does include a killer (if brief) new piece from Dean McPhee ("The Second Message") that is predictably an album highlight. Unsurprisingly, I am predisposed to enjoy just about everything he releases, but "The Second Message" is doubly enjoyable for being something of an aberration, as McPhee's usual sustain-heavy melodicism is beautifully enhanced by a gorgeous descending chord motif and an unexpectedly wild and psychotropic finale. I was also thoroughly delighted by the trio of Carl Turney, Brian Campbell & Peter Smyth, as "July Aitee" is a perfectly distilled swirl of groovy, synth-driven dreampop magic (as well as a healthy bit of howling chaos).
The remaining pieces are frequently wonderful as well, as the fertile subject material inspired quite a lot of charmingly weird, wonky, and hallucinatory compositions and performances. Also, nearly every piece sticks to a tight two- or three-minute duration, which is very effective at ensuring that no pieces overstay their welcome or slow the album's momentum. Naturally, there are plenty of samples of people describing their supernatural experiences throughout the album as well, which provides a consistent (and compelling) thematic thread throughout the stylistically varied cavalcade of surreal miniatures. That said, there are a couple of strains that occur more frequently than others. One of those strains is best described as a sort of retrofuturism that feels indebted to '60s sci-fi television and BBC Radiophonic Workshop-style electronics, while the other is more atmospheric in nature (squelching abstract weirdness, drifting voices, crackling shortwave radio transmissions, etc.).
Naturally, there are a decent number of compelling outliers as well and several of them occupy a niche seldom found anywhere outside of Folklore Tapes' collections, such as the closing spoken word piece ("Glorious Green Globe") from poet Emily Oldfield. Thorn Wych's "Windy Hill" is another favorite, resembling a scratchy recording of a traditional folk ensemble (and possibly a nearby horse) getting sucked into a time-distorting extra-dimensional portal. Notably, the pleasures of this album further deepened by the accompanying artist notes, as there are several pieces that instantly became significantly more compelling once I knew their backstory. In fact, this LP would still be a fascinating release even if all the music vanished, as the stories are an incredible Pandora's Box of weirdness that crosses into counterculture and outsider art in some very unexpected ways (Mick Jagger, Jimi Hendrix, tape music, and The Happy Mondays all play a role and the hypothesis that Hendrix himself may have been an alien is certainly not something that I had previously considered).
As much as I enjoy many individual pieces and stories, however, the star of When the Frog from the Well Sees the Ocean (Reports from English UFOlklore) is Folklore Tapes' curatorial vision, as the label has a singular talent for finding unusual, intriguing, and thoughtful contributors, which combines beautifully with the label's "anything goes" approach to creative freedom (as long as the result roughly sticks to the album's theme, of course). Consequently, the best Folklore Tapes compilations transform scholarship and history into a charming and eclectic collision of tall tales, high art, humor, literature, pop culture references, kitsch, folk horror, and playful experimentalism unlike anything being released by other labels. And, of course, there is always Jez Winship around to provide necessary context and tie everything together. The label truly outdid themselves with this one, as the liner notes alone are an endlessly fascinating rabbit hole of secret societies, enigmatic CIA projects, and obscure books that illuminate some very enticing cultural undercurrents that will probably hold my interest long after the album falls out of rotation (first stop: researching visionary artist Charles Dellschau). Much like previous Folklore Tapes classics like The Folklore of Plants and Calendar Customs, this LP is much more than a mere compilation: it is a one-of-a-kind labor of love that celebrates the weird, wonderful, forgotten, and oft-unexplainable bits of humanity's long and strange history.