Folk music is a tradition that has existed as long as the folks who sing it. Typically the style entails acoustic instrumentation, a focus on melody, and lyrics that tell a story that needs to be told, and will always need to be told. Those same elements are exactly what the five-piece band, Ptarmigan, bring in their music, and they’re able to do it in a way that feels fresh, fantastical, and worthy of attention.
Formed in 2010, Ptarmigan is a self-described “progressive folk band” from Toronto. Their self-titled album, Ptarmigan, released in August 2016, is actually the band’s second, after 2013’s Eliak and the Dream, but is as good an introduction to their sound.
What most makes Ptarmigan stand out is the unconscious blending of traditional instruments and modern electronic techniques. I say unconscious because every element of the album feels natural and organic to the song. Across all eight tracks, the spell is never broken.
“Spirit Wakes” begins with a dark-toned acoustic guitar and tribal-sounding drums, building to an electric guitar crescendo that doesn’t feel simply kicked in to jar the listener. “O Zephyr” easily fits in a soft banjo to give a homey feeling, while a mandolin melody heightens the sense of mysticism, and a tasteful electric guitar swells and squeezes as needed. Subtle use of synths and multilayering vocal melodies embolden tracks further, emphasizing the album’s focus: a serenading of nature.
This is the kind of music you’d hear leaving your hobbit-hole and walking through Tolkien’s Shire.
The lyrics, while cryptic at times, are woven with potent imagery—fevered visions of forest creatures, ghost walking among trees, and the slightest hint of modern cities existing in far off places—as album opener “A Magician of Sorts” testifies:
I had the visions of a man / With his harmony and trill
“Limbs” reveals the speaker to be caught in a liminal state between nature and city-life:
The forest floor, she lets me go / Though her cradle leaves wanting more /…Far away the buildings rise / My attachment to does underlie.”
If I had to classify Ptarmigan, I’d call it high-fantasy folk. This is the kind of music you’d hear leaving your hobbit-hole and walking through Tolkien’s Shire. “Stilts” especially brings that warm sense of home-away-from-reality by using a rolling brush-snare groove under an accordion melody. Delivered with the vocalist Peter McMurtry’s distinct voice and lisp, supported by swooning harmonies from his bandmates, the album and its subjects feel truly genuine.
Ptarmigan has reinvigorated folk music for me in a way that is both fantastical and real. They absorb modernity into tradition, and allow the two realms to coexist naturally. None of the diverse cast of instruments feels plugged in for a gimmicky hook. The self-titled Ptarmigan catches the band intoxicated on their own sound in a completely unselfish way, and it’s easy for listeners to fall into their charm too.
We give this album 8,200 out of 10,000 Rawckus Kung Fu throwing stars.