Hear the new album from Seth Martin, Oregon born singer/songwriter from Oregon living in South Korea. T.C. Costello reviews his latest album, Through Dark Valleys, and discovers his music has deep roots in the American Folk tradition as well as strong political convictions.
During these unprecedented new-normal and blah blah blah times, artists across the globe have been forced to adapt, improvise, and learn to create in new ways. While I’ve dealt with said times by entering a period of unprecedented unproductivity, other artists have embraced the new normal and have turned to the internet. Live streams have been ubiquitous across social media these last 12 months, often times with stylish masks and links to fundraisers.
But Seoul-based folklorist and singer-songwriter Seth Martin, with his reputation for collaborative efforts bringing together various artists and traditions from around the world, was faced with a unique challenge. How was he to collaborate at a time when social interaction was to be kept, by law, to a minimum? In the end, despite his fairly pronounced luddite sensibilities and approaches to performing and recording, turned to the internet. The result was an album that never would have happened, had it not been such an unprecedented, blah blah blah, nightmare of a year.
“Through Dark Valleys,” says Seth, “is both part of a half-decade long project and a fairly sudden decision to finish an album, however unconventionally, that resulted in an unusual and explosive collaborative final recording process.”
A part of this “Mountain Trilogy,” ¨Through Dark Valleys” is built around a set of studio performances from 2015-2016 in Portland, Oregon, with Seth and his longtime producer and collaborator David Fuller, “as well as “a handful of live, lo-fi phone or camera recordings I had made in recent years here in Korea,” Seth adds.
Different versions of the album had been in the works for years, but circumstances kept getting in the way of its completion. Finally the needed spark came unexpectedly last winter. The album would not have happened without the sudden chance to perform with and get inspired by well-known Korean folk rocker Hahn Dae Soo, one of Seth’s musical heroes. Hahn was not part of the album, but his influence is largely what made its completion possible.
Hahn Dae Soo was so kind, hilarious, and fun to work with, and the experience of joining him for a recording session, a show, and several meals and times of sharing stories deeply inspired me. He only had a few weeks to make a full album, and his main concert in Korea to support the album–which he claims, sadly, is his “last”–had to be switched from in-person to online due to Corona regulations.
But instead of disappointment, writes Seth, Hahn Dae Soo “used his influence to simultaneously include and encourage a large group of musicians in his project,” and to preach “caution, cooperation and solidarity in efforts to respect mask and group regulations, to keep one another safe during this pandemic.”
Seth remembers his time with Hahn as “fresh water to my pandemic-depressed soul,” and after the collaboration, he suddenly felt that it was not only possible, but that winter 2020, with all its isolation and limits for artists, was the perfect time to finish the album. In early December, he contacted violinist Zoe Youngmi Blank, producer David Fuller, and his younger brother and fellow artist Joel Martin, with hopes of finishing the process by Christmas.
All agreed to take a shot at building and completing the album together, with plans of a final project ready to share by Christmas. Zoe, who contributed backing vocals and violin from her home in Seoul, called it the “most fulfilling remote collaboration (she’s) been a part of”:
Due to the Corona music hiatus, it was a relief to finally play music together, though it being remote. Actually it being remote lead to a unique synergy between Seth, David Fuller and Joel Martin that surprised me. The project existed somewhere beyond space and time. We, all spread across the planet, could meet in this nonphysical recording space… online. In folk tradition, we echoed past generations’ struggles and strengths, yet grounded ourselves to modern day relevance present in Seth’s lyrics.”
Joel, who added guitar and vocals mostly from his homemade studio in the hills of small-town Toledo, Washington–his and Seth’s hometown–where he had been spending the fall and winter in isolation with his parents, said he is “awestruck at how spectacular a job… David Fuller did with the messy pile of tracks he got from all of us.”
Seth describes the process as “a flurry of experimentation and track sharing between myself, David, Joel, and Zoe–two of us in Korea, two in the US, all isolated from each other.”
This rag-tag and somewhat intentionally haphazard, free-flowing collaboration resulted in a low-fi, psychedelic album with atmospheric and at times disconcerting arrangements, and the choice of songs were frankly a perfect reflection for such a year.
Heavy themes aside, the album starts with a simple fiddle-and-banjo tune with that one can easily whistle or hum along to, and indeed, the cast of the album joins in with humming and whistle along.
Next comes one of the highlights of the album, the stream-of-consciousness “April 1st (Rusty Roads)”.
The base track was Martin performing the ten-minute song for the first time ever into his phone, “So parts of it were inspired and kind of made up on the spot, as I read the paper in front of me in my room and also improvised as felt right in the moment.” Martin adds, “we embraced rather than cleaned up the messiness, and real grief and wobbliness in the recording.”
Seth follows this with an interpretation of Mother, Sister, a poem by Kim So-Wol, a Korean poet under Japanese colonisation. Providing lead vocals on Mother, Sister is Gwon Jaehyoung, a Korean folk musician and leader of SMB mountain school. Martin joins him, and Seoul singer-songwriter eeho adds some wonderful background vocals. Next comes “Don’t Forget It,” which Seth wrote in 2014 when he was hiking in Korea, falling in love with Lee Nan Young, now his wife, and decided to move to Korea. The track begins with a familiar refrain from a classic children’s song about a bear that went over a mountain, but these lines are soaked in a current and heavy feeling of loneliness fitting the times we are in, and carry added significance given the mountain symbolism and themes that run through the project. There is also the Korean symbolism of bears and mountains being referenced here, adding to the beauty and intertwined, heavy history in the song, personally, and with Korea-US relations generally. As the song winds and rambles down its path, it features some truly impressive violin work from Zoe that really adds unexpected rhythms and several climaxes to the song.
Then, after nearly ten minutes of singing about the importance of walking the long and hard roads together and promising not to let go of love when life is at its loneliest and hardest, we are suddenly brought to another scene of grief and pain. Track 6 features the traditional American spiritual ¨Climbing High Mountains,¨ which is quite the pertinent hymn for 2020.
“I’ve been climbing high mountains trying to get home.
I’ve been wading deep waters trying to get home.
I’ve been burying my loved ones trying to get home.
I’ve been climbing high mountains trying to get home.”
Musically, this a slow build featuring multilayered violin tracks by Zoe, and a chorus of background singers from either side of the Pacific Ocean, that is too time consuming, if not impossible to identify by name.
In Korea, Seth recruited Yamagata Tweakster, Eeeho, Choi Sung-Hee, and No Soon Cheon, about half of whom I know, and on the US’ West Coast, David recruited close family and friends, Nicholas Von Pless, Sarah Fuller, Maya Fuller, Jonathan Behr, and Elizabeth Hadley -“All from his Corona “pod,” Seth adds.” Further, students from SMB mountain school as well as friends at an ant-gentrification vigil added background vocals throughout the album, if not this song specifically.
Next stop is America in the 1860s with Civil War ballad “Going Across the Mountain,” popularised by Frank Proffitt, who claimed it was written by a family member from South who crossed the mountains “to give (President of the Confederacy Jefferson Davis’) men a little of my rifle ball.”
Another, slow build, it starts with a spacey intro of the well known Korean folk song, Doraji, and ends up with a bit of a disco rhythm courtesy of Joel Martin and David Fuller on bass and percussion. The effect is a more than a bit disconcerting, particularly with the different backup vocalists chiming in and cutting out seemingly at random. Even more disconcerting is that the song descends into another controlled-chaos remix of field recording of a Korean grandmother’s singing a protest tune called “Little Giant”
It is a mixture of David’s experimental mixing, and banjo chiming alongside a field recording of a Korean grandmother singing a satirical tune in protest of a gentrification project in (A Seoul neighbourhood), in which a group of newtown apartment folks pressured the local government to bulldoze her small diner along with many other streetside shops, to “improve” and “widen” and make more safe a street between an outdoor market and a school. The grandmother is calling out the apartment collective defiantly. Her shop had been a popular stop for locals for around 3 decades, and was called “Little Giant.”
Next is the only track on the album that Seth had absolutely no part in. It’s a sound collage put together almost entirely by David Fuller in his Portland studio–the central headquarters and final destination of everyone’s individual recordings done in isolation across Korea and the States. Using passages from the dark and often caustic verses of “45 Voices: Overheard in an American Graveyard,” Seth’s book of poems reflecting on the first 100 days of the Trump regime, written as a sort of continuation or companion piece to the first Mountain album-t proves very zeitgestiy with delivery of lines like:
“Of course not all immigrants are rapists and drug dealers, but don’t you think the stereotypes for a reason?¨Seth adds, “Fuller’s own voice is featured but in a deeply distorted fashion, and he also included several other voices of album collaborators, each taking on various disturbing Americana “characters” as they were depicted in the book. In creating this sound collage, Fuller creatively included the poetry book follow-up to This Mountain into Through Dark Valleys, not only linking it to both albums, but also endowing sections of it with its own sound, and thus cleverly recasting it as a musical work itself.” Regarding the experimental sounds in the background, Martin adds, “I couldn’t tell you all the technical weird stuff David did in that track exactly, but I love it, and I am glad it is there.”
Next, the crew of the album plays Martin’s “The Ballad of Eric Garner,” Set to the tune of the American work song “900 Miles,” the song is a tribute to Eric Garner,” famously murdered by police in New York City, but also serves as a statement on the realities of current systemic racism and police brutality across the States.
“Out in famous New York City
Famous for its lack of pity
That’s where a man named Eric Garner used to live
He was big and Black and proud
Had friends and family all around
And despite so many hassles with police
Garner’s neighbors knew him as a man of peace“
A very raw recording, you can hear Martin’s chair squeaking as he sings of Garner’s last day on earth, and his ensemble delivers some particularly psychedelic instrumentation with producer David fuller adding keyboards, trumpet and clarinet.
Another experimental track, “Ferry Boat and Passenger & smoke break during an air raid drill” follows.
The lyrics come from Buddhist Korean Independence activist Manhae’s famous poem, and Martin’s wife, Lee Nan Young, reads the poem in Korean:
“I am the boat that carried you
across the river…
You pressed your dirty feet
against my sides,
while I kept you safe and dry.
When you reached the other side
and began to walk away,
you did not look back.
I am still here
waiting for you to return…”
Martin’s original, “Grown up Soul (These Dark Valleys)” proves to be a perfect ending to the album, once again with a raw, but multilayered psychedelic sound, Seth sings:
“I’ve been walking these dark valleys
trying to find a place called home
And everywhere I laid my head
I felt so cold and all alone”
(You can stream or download Through Dark Valleys at the Bandcamp link below)
Buy Through Dark Valleys Bandcamp
Thanks to TC for the review. TC is currently shacked up in Barcelona and playing the odd gig or two there so give him a nudge over at his FB page to find out where and check out our review of his last album The Blackbird to hear more from him.