Rock musicians have been dipping their toes into the Middle Ages forever, from Incredible String Band’s troubadour folk, to Led Zeppelin’s piper leading us to reason; from Iron Maiden’s historical epics, to Fleet Foxes’ dalliances with the Baroque. Langan Frost & Wane aren’t mere dabblers, though. On their self-titled debut album, Brian Langan, RJ Gilligan (Frost) and Nam Wayne (Wane) are fully committed to the era, transporting listeners to a land of sorcerers, alchemists, falconers and damsels. Trafficking in eerie minor keys and buttressing their guitars with bouzouki, mandolin, harpsichord, flutes, violin and organ, the psych-folk trio is all in on the concept from opening track “Perhaps the Sorcerer” to the closer “Diomyria.”
The up-tempo “Perhaps the Sorcerer” sets the stage, with rapidly plucked string instruments evoking the chaos of a Middle Eastern bazaar, while the sitar sounds of “The Dandelion'” recall the Rolling Stones’ “Paint it Black.” Langan’s voice shines on “Falcon’s Ridge,” as he sings, “Steady your bow, straighten your arrow and aim for the soul.” “Babe and the Devil” is acoustic blues, and “King Laughter” is a tale about a dionysian fellow who dines on wild boar and blueberry wine, “but I was there when the well ran dry,” Langan sings. “Everyday Phoenix” is a pretty, romantic folk tune, and “Frozen Shell” is mysterious and courtly.
The most compelling of the 15 songs are “Learn the Name of the Plants” and “Alchemist of Hazy Road.” In the former, Wayne sings from the point of view from a Medieval herbalist, ticking off various plants that were believed to have healing, magical or deadly properties. “Know the nightshade from the blueberry, and live to see tomorrow,” he advises, reminding us just how dangerous everyday life was before the age of science. The knowledge dropped here, however, is timeless: “Know weakness from compassion, doctrine from what’s true, isn’t life a mystery?”
Langan takes lead vocals on “Alchemist,” a jaunty and breezy song, peppered with flutes, whose music belies its sinister character: The alchemist isn’t a nice guy. “The last sound you’ll hear, as the blood stings your ears, is the cackling and madness below,” he concludes.
“The Weaver and the Traveler” is another allegorical tune, like “Plants,” with Gilligan singing of a wise and world-weary weaver who offers guidance to a traveler, highlighted by a fuzzy organ solo.
The last four songs — “Orange Magic,” “Everywing,” “She Walks Alone” and “Dimoyria” — are notable for a few stonerific lyrics, like “She can see through the eyes of the cormorant” and “We are the beak that crows the endless storm” (these dudes are really into birds), but they don’t add much to the album. Fifteen songs are a lot, maybe too many; ending with “The Weaver” might have made for a better listening experience.
That said, what Langan Frost & Wane have done here is remarkable, having built a cinematic village of characters with tales to tell that resonate beyond that construct, and sound tracking it with instrumentation drawn from the folk world, Eastern genres and Renaissance fairs — and they’ve done it without being shticky. We hope to hear more from this trio of troubadours.