Willow Tea

If we played an association game and you said 'Willow Tea', I would instantly reply with a part of their Bandcamp short bio: 'Melodies for sad children'. I am not particularly sad and, if I have to be honest with myself, I'm also not a child anymore (for those who wish to go back to that innocent time of wonder and magick, Neil Gaiman's The Ocean at the End of the Lane is the recommended prescription). For this reason, in summer 2022, while taking the first steps into the kaleidoscopic Willow Tea's discography from the haunting Home, I asked myself: 'what am I doing here?'.

I am ashamed to admit that, for a long time, Home was not for me. I was looking for melody-driven Dungeon Synth infused with dreams of magic and resounding of the strength of heroes, but instead I got a moody, almost menacing album that could be a fitting soundtrack to black and white melancholic horror. The beauty of the slowly-unfolding melodies, of the dissonances jumping at the listener without notice, and of the overall oppressive atmosphere was lost on me. And yet, despite finding it jarring, I kept coming back Home again. And again. And again. Until someone (probably Willow themselves) pointed me towards Orb Weaver.

Orb weavers, for those not in the know, are particular kinds of spiders, renowned for their sprawling webs. They come in all sorts of sizes and shapes, but the project logo makes me think of the biggest and fattest of them all. I don't know about the connections between Orb Weaver's music and their eponymous muses, but I found Two Suns In The Sunset to be a fitting introduction to Dungeon Drone.

I've mentioned a couple of times that, as a synth player, I'm a metal guy. However, since I was very little I was brought to many concerts of classical music. In time, the seed planted in my youth grew into an intellectual fascination towards some features of "highbrow" music. One of these is so-called liminal music, that I met mostly through this YouTube video. The idea of very slow, melody-free music that still evolves at a glacial pace, was both utterly fascinating and completely alien to me. Before hearing Two Suns In The Sunset, and indeed before even starting a Dungeon Synth project, I've tried composing a "slow songs", but it was hilariously fast and still pretty much melody-driven and had nothing to do with liminal music. If you want to hear it, in 2023 I rearranged it into The Last Embers of the Fire (number IV is the "complete" version, but throughout the album I tried hard to create a narrative starting from I and culminating to IV, so my advice would be to listen to the four versions in order - if not to the full album).

Two Suns In The Sunset gave me a lot of food for thought, and it also provoked me to ask for help to other DS artists, that described slow music as a "sonic bath" to enjoy in an almost timeless manner. The bath idea finally clicked, and it helped me enjoy not only Orb Weaver's album, but also other wonderful Dungeon Drone projects.

And finally I realized that it takes a particular kind of skill to compose effective slow music, it's not just a matter of lowering the tempo in the DAW. Every melody has its own speed (or, rather range of speeds at which it could work), and this is true also for sounds. Some heavily modulated pads can't work at a high speed, while others fall apart when played too slow... something was finally starting to click.

Listening to these albums motivated me to give another shot at composing slow music. However, the end result was still hilariously fast and, while it tried to embrace some features of Dungeon Drone, was way off the mark. The song eventually found a home in You Wake Up In a Crypt, a 2023 charity compilation featuring also Elyvilon, WinDGeisT, Cursebitten, Rog, Myrrys, Ithildin, Bartizan Chill, Hermit Knight, and Willow Tea themselves.

Despite my failed attempt, Dungeon Drone was firmly rooted in my music imaginarium. It took many more months and a lot of help from many artists, though, to finally see this seed blossom. This, however, is a story for another day. For now, it sufficies to say that both Arrhythmias and Páska owe a debt of gratitude, among others, to Orb Weaver, Snowspire, Spectral Sorrow...

The Dungeon Drone breakthrough isn’t the end of my story with Willow Tea. In January 2023 they shared some codes for Tales From Underneath. My mixed experience with Home didn't scare me away from trying this other album, and it was a revelation.

The music instantly clicked and the story sketched by the song titles spoke clearly to me. It reminds me strongly of Snuff, one of my favourite Discworld books, centred around specesism ("Racism was not a problem on the Discworld, because — what with trolls and dwarfs and so on — speciesism was more interesting. Black and white lived in perfect harmony and ganged up on green") against goblins. There's a lot of younger goblin laments in the book, and themes of darkness, hope, and loss resonate through the whole story.

Galvanized by this resonance with Tales From Underneath, I listened to Iris River: I have very strong personal reasons for wanting to like that album... and I was back to my first experience with Home.

By then, I started to accept that with Willow Tea's music requires me to exit my music comfort zone and to approach it like a timeless quest of self-growth, without any shame if some of their music doesn’t speak to me instantly - or even after a long time. In this spirit, I was never discouraged to check out their music, both old and new, because by then I understood that, no matter my preferences, Willow has a compositive and narrative depth that I didn't want to overlook. It was in such a way that I connected also to some of their other albums and projects. And I was amazed at their incredible range: Woods of Sith Cala, Nebelkrähe, Lichenography, Hedgerows, the lovely yet haunting collaborations with Woodland Spells...

It’s interesting to notice the strong nature themes weaved into most of Willow’s music, as in other Dungeon Synth artists I enjoy (such as Bruna and Desolazione Rurale). My relationship with the natural world was heavily influenced by my illness, so as a child I developed mixed feelings about the great outdoors. Dungeon Synth is, unexpectedly, giving me a chance to heal some of those feelings, and to see the nature around me (and especially the hills near home) with new eyes and renewed fascination.

Unsurprisingly, nature is one of the protagonists of one of the biggest surprises from Willow Tea: Ancient Mariner, published under the bandcamp page of a certain Storm Petrel (nature, nature everywhere ;).

Thunderous synths, terrific sense of melody, breathtaking command of both distorted and clean sounds, great references to a classic poem... everything about this album seemed to be tailor-made for me. I would instantly recommend it to anyone looking for an accessible entry point in (Dungeon) Noise/Doom and, while not being so slow to be called Drone, to my eyes it's a gateway into that world as well. Consciously or not, it surely has influenced some of my own more textural and slow projects, chiefly among them Arrhythmias.

However, Willow's surprises didn't end here. Their latest project, Greenhollow, is another instant hit for me.

Intimate and melancholic, Greenhollow’s atmospheres and melodies have the power of creating a safe space, a warded sanctuary for healing and introspection. I see it as a moodier and darker brother of the more serene Fourthpeak.

As more albums get released, the project is becoming more and more nuanced, with tracks such as The Nighwatcher suggesting that something eerie lies at the heart of Greenhollow’s quiet refuges.

And maybe this is my takeaway from Willow’s music: there’s something eerie inside of everyone, something that might be hard to acknowledge and face. However, if we give it a safe space and enough time, healing is possible. Not because we need to be perfect or without dark sides, but because we owe it to ourselves and to the people around us to take care of our inner garden, so that in turn we can nourish others. This somehow brings me back to where I started: I might not be that sad and might not be a child, but I’m glad that Home is there for me.

ᚼᛁᛆᚱᛐᛆᚿᛋ, March 2024