The Eccentronic Research Council (ERC) is a collective founded by Sheffield musicians Adrian Flanagan and Dean Honer.
1612 Underture, their new concept album, also features the Bolton-born actress Maxine Peake. No stranger to controversy, Maxine starred in Channel 4’s Shameless and played Moors murderer Myra Hindley in See No Evil.
This year marks the 400th anniversary of the Pendle witch trials. The names of the accused – Demdike, Chattox, Alice Nutter – are evocative, but their real stories have been overshadowed by ignorance and superstition.
‘Autobahn 666’ is a nod to Kraftwerk and the A666, a major road through Manchester and Lancashire. It is the first in a series of travelogues.
Declaring Lancashire as ‘God’s country’, Maxine adds, ‘Some call it the Road to Hell but I can’t believe the Devil came from Bolton.’ Her journey is a kind of pilgrimage, and she condemns the persecution of Pendle’s witches as ‘Proof if ever needed that man can be a black dog.’
‘This is The North’ places us in ‘the fantastical North…Blakeian in its green and pleasant but demoralised by its dark and Satanic.’ Though Lancashire’s countryside has been partly gentrified (‘Through pokey limestone villages we drove past tearooms’), its defiant spirit endures.
‘Wicked Sister Chant’ is a brief, distorted piece featuring a high-pitched, breathy mantra, ‘We are not your kind’. It is followed by a dramatic reading of ‘Her Kind’, a confessional piece by the American poet, Anne Sexton, reclaiming the witch as a figure of power.
‘Malkin Cat Behind a Wall’ is probably inspired by the excavation of a cottage at Lower Black Moss, near Pendle, which made headlines last year. A mummified cat was found within its walls – a common practice in rural communities, believed to protect against witchcraft.
Returning to the travelogue, ‘Curious Morbids’ takes us on the tourist trail, featuring ‘a heritage centre with Doctor Who as a narrator’, and a tourist shop ‘run by a nice lady thirty years in the witch business.’ Maxine notes the dilemma of marketing ‘the loss and the hanging of women like us.’
The title track, ‘1612 Underture’, is a sombre march with that marks the album’s midway point. ‘Trial by Jiggery Pokery’, as performed by Maxine Peake, is a speech for the defence. She confesses, ‘I am guilty, yes, of petty theft and using words that maybe stress.’
In 17th century England, the courts were expected to deliver divine justice. ‘How can one defend one’s self against rhetorical sleights of hand,’ Maxine asks, ‘when the law, if it’s to be infallible, must be manifestly evident?’
In past times magic had been a coping mechanism, but it was now considered evil. ‘Is it not manifestly evident,’ Maxine says of a spell performed by Demdike, ‘that four sticks placed around a stone and sprinkled with water can bring eternal love?’
She then addresses the court clerk who published an account of the trial. ‘His persuasive intent,’ Maxine states, ‘had us already guilty in the eyes of the wolves. Unfortunately for people like us,’ she concludes, ‘we have never known a happy ending.’
‘From the Grave to the Freshco’s Late’ is another travelogue, taking us to St Mary’s, Newchurch-in-Pendle, former parish to the accused witches. Accompanied by piano and a choir’s faint echo, it has an elegiac tone.
‘Pendle Wind’ is the longest instrumental on the album, and first in a trilogy. It brings to life the spare, rugged landscape in sonic form. Bells toll ominously, and a church organ plays a melancholy tune.
As the track progresses into ‘No Hackney Cab to Gallows Hill’, it becomes frenzied, suggesting the prisoners’ final journey, witnessed by crowds of onlookers.
‘The Hangman’s Song’ is sung by Lucy Hope of Sheffield’s Chanteuse & the Crippled Claw. Her vocals are haunting and ethereal. ‘When you escape velocity,’ she sings, ‘think of me.’
‘Device Kids Find a Box of Chattox Melody’ begins with birdsong, and refers to Demdike’s grandchildren, James, Alizon and Jennet. The eldest two were sentenced to death, while Jennet was left an orphan.
‘Another Witch is Dead’ is described as ‘traditional’, with a chiming pop sensibility. The vocals are half-sung by Maxine Peake and Philly Smith, with a searing chorus from Lucy Hope.
‘Curse my tongue I need to eat,’ Maxine whispers, ‘Pass my palm with a little silver, and I promise not to kill your sheep.’ From the gallows, she accuses, ‘Every eye that sees is guilty of a subtle kind of cruelty.’
‘Ouija Up a Witch’, the last instrumental, is discordant and menacing. ‘The Ghost of Old Elisabeth Southerns returns’ is a commentary on the injustice and hypocrisy of our own age. Setting her sights on David Cameron and Jeremy Kyle, among others, Peake curses ‘gossips that do nowt taking the moral high ground.’
1612 Underture is accompanied by a 20-minute film from Kluncklick, a blend of live footage and eerie animation, in grainy monochrome and featuring Maxine Peake as a nun. The ERC have also performed at UK festivals this summer.