For five years, Margaret Wienk has been telling a story, and loyal listeners have followed her into the lush fantasy world she has created, getting lost among the twisting melodies and alluring imagery that called out like a mysterious thicket of dark woods, emanating both a natural beauty and sinister aura that are impossible to resist. On her third album, the self-titled Fern Knight, it sounds for the first time like she’s willing to emerge from that fantasy and set foot on familiar ground, though she brings much of that compelling dryadic spirit out with her.
Fern Knight has been Wienk’s vehicle since 2003, when she and collaborator Mike Corcoran released Seven Years for Severed Limbs, a sleeper masterpiece that introduced the group’s dark, gothic folk intentions. Fern Knight draws much from the British folk of artists like Pentangle or Vashti Bunyan, whose music has a decidedly Celtic or medieval feel. It identifies with nature and with earthy themes that border on pagan, but ultimately the music is an evocation of feeling and emotion rather than a particular set of dogmas. Simply put, it is beautiful music that draws energy from the landscape and fires the imagination with its elegantly constructed melodies and poetic lyrics.
Fern Knight begins with “Bemused”, a song drenched in cascading harp and sharp yet subtle stabs of acid guitar. It inaugurates the first of the album’s three segments, this one still deep within Wienk’s fairy tale, and it’s impossible not to be entranced by the song’s charms. Listening to her sweetly sing the song’s closing mantra, “lapping sea foam with your fingers that stretch the circumference around”, as her voice overlaps and harmonizes with itself, it feels as if the song is plummeting downward, pulling the listener down the rabbit hole. “Silver Fox” and “Sundew” follow with equally delightful excursions into the fantasy. The band is at its finest here, as members Jesse Sparhawk, Jim Ayre, and James Wolf create a solid foundation of sounds, blending the electric with the acoustic and threading neatly with Wienk’s arrangements for strings.
The album’s second segment is where Fern Knight enters the real world, with a travelogue triptych that honors particular landmarks. “Synge’s Chair” and “Loch Na Fooey” are songs for the west of Ireland, the former detailing an unfruitful trip to discover the favorite spot of playwright John Millington Synge on the Aran Island of Inishmaan, the latter hailing a body of water in County Galway. “Hawk Mountain” describes the eponymous sanctuary in the Pennsylvanian Appalachians. All of these places represent the margins of civilization, places where the push of civilization butts up against the last outposts of unbridled nature. “Synge’s Chair” captures the gloomy wonder of the stormy Aran Islands, and of Synge’s work in particular, which immortalized the persistent will of the people there, who lived both with and in opposition to the natural forces around them.
The three tracks which close the album comprise the “Magpie Suite”, a work that is a culmination of the progression seen on Fern Knight, where the music departs from fantasy, emerges in the margins, and finally confronts reality. The suite, also written during the trip to Ireland, is a stark meditation on the frightful potential for environmental decay that hangs over our world. It’s an extended keening, in which Wienk looks into a possible future and laments the devastation, with nothing but memories of the vistas that were once so inspiring and uplifting. “All is lost”, she sighs in “Part II”, “All is gone / waking nightmare”. It’s quite dire, a funeral dirge for the Earth. It’s also a reminder that no matter how pleasing it is to indulge in fantasy or escape to the edges of the world, one cannot escape reality and must ultimately take part in its caretaking.
Fern Knight, like most self-titled albums, is in many ways a statement of purpose. It’s a wonderfully full realization of the many aspects of Margaret Wienk’s abilities, as a songwriter, as a musician, and as a storyteller. She’s conscious that great beauty and great darkness often go hand in hand, and deftly balances both throughout her work. On Fern Knight it’s her bright voice that lights the way, and even as the music descends into the depths, that light is never extinguished and makes approaching the darkness far easier.