Lost Chords & Serenades Divine #19 by Stephen McClurg
Silica Gel: May Day (2020)
Silica Gel’s May Day opens with the title track, a lilting version of an estampie by twelfth century troubadour de Vaqueras. The liner notes say, “We hope our rendition, with drums-a-pounding and whispering voices reminding you of all you love but cannot possess allows you to dance the heartsickness away.” Since the title at once references revelry and rebirth, International Workers’ Day, and a distress signal, the title serves the playful seriousness and layers of sometimes contradictory meanings of the music. Silica Gel’s approach on this tune is to take folk and classical vocal forms, harmonious and airy vocals, and meld them to brute percussion and jarringly contemporary electronics.
May Day features gorgeous artwork and engaging liner notes, sometimes historical, sometimes poetic. The lyrics range from a variety of early song texts, notably twelfth and fourteenth century folk songs, and originals. Silica Gel is not a period-specific revival band. Instead, they commit to having old songs speak to contemporary times, honoring traditions while commenting on contemporary life.
My first reaction to the album was that it was a kind of folk horror score written by Julia Holter. Silica Gel, and the label Sweet Wreath, often create with seasons and cycles in mind: sounds and songs become articulations of light and weather and water and thunder. Similarly, the songs here connect to the physical, emotional, and liminal: these are songs of art and thought and love and protest, topics that cycle through humanity’s collective life and creativity. “New Year’s Dream” evokes not only the larger seasons and cycles, but also the scene of an early morning, vaguely lightheaded walk after a party to watch the sun rise.
It’s difficult to balance these conceptual and thematic threads, but the album manages it well. One of the best examples is “Pan Pan Medico,” a title that itself was used as a former distress signal. The song seems obscure at first, but every listen brings in more clarity, but also other layers of ideas. Playful and dark themes combine with folk songs, children’s songs, codes, and a sequence from “Yankee Doodle.” The ending deconstructs “Sweet Home Alabama,” one of the most unexpected, eerie and sublime moments on the album.
This is a collection speaking toward similar themes and ideas rather than a straightforward narrative. Like much folk music, it can be at once abrasive and balming.
Silica Gel’s May Day is available on Bandcampthrough Sweet Wreath.
Stephen McClurg (Episode 24) writes and teaches in Birmingham, Alabama. He co-hosts The Outrider Podcast, writes at Eunoia Solstice, and infrequently blogs. He has contributed music as a solo artist and with the group Necronomikids to past episodes of The Drunken Odyssey.