Dangling over each of these pieces is the spectre of death; the solemn summary of a life; the moral boundaries over which people step, and the mortal boundaries over which people are pushed. The words of traditional songs declared in profound vow, rich in the doubtless conviction that must exist in words regarding justice and such severe consequences, set to backdrops of aged strings plucked and bowed, both stern and immovably resigned. One of the most remarkable aspects of Tyburnia – which is subtitled as “a radical history of 600 years of public execution”, threading together traditional folk songs into a pathway through historical justice and crime – is how each of these pieces balance sadness and fervent belief. After all, the inevitable melancholy of execution cannot be construed as doubt or regret, and within the gloom of pieces such as “The Black Procession” is the stomp and hearty voice of moral conviction. The punishment is unfortunate, but nonetheless a necessary component of justice.
This is more than a mere catalogue of traditional songs, and it’s the acute sound design that borders each of these pieces which causes my insides to curdle in the discomfort of impending or resurrected death. “A New Meeting Of Ghosts At Tyburn” tells of several men (among them, Oliver Cromwell, John Bradshaw and Henry Ioeton) that were posthumously executed at Tyburn, their bodies were exhumed and suspended at the gallows. It’s a babble of vacant voices crawling over eachother and smothering each out of audibility; dead phonemes forced through the low-fidelity of archival capture. Meanwhile, the ballad of Jonathan Wild – which accounts his last day of life prior to execution, whimpering with a resignation that bobs to the surface of madness and the onset of disease – is promptly followed by the hollow space and hideous scrapes of “Smugglerius”, and then the sonorous precipitation of “The Bellman’s Exhortation”. The last words of Wild hang in my head, suspended between the cascade of metal and chime. Dead Rat Orchestra carry me upon the mortal brink to bare witness to the various final flashes of life, like candles going out one by one.