“People still have to do bad things to eat,” says Maxine Peake at one point on 1612 Underture. Likening today’s hardships to those of four centuries ago, she describes a group of women in her native Lancashire who were persecuted and hanged for witchcraft. Peake, a TV actress known for the legal drama Silk and The Red Riding Trilogy, has lobbied for an adaption of the Pendle witch trials for years, and in the absence of finding a sympathetic producer, has teamed up with I Monster (a.k.a. Dean Honer) and Adrian Flannagan of Kings Have Long Arms to record a spoken-word account set to retro electronica.
While other U.K. acts have previously referenced the 400-year-old events of Pendle Town (most recently witch-house duo Pendle Coven), no one has explored them with as much passion. Over vignettes styled to mimic BBC Radiophonic Workshop soundtracks, Peake recounts a visit to Pendle, tongue firmly in cheek as she imagines the mob mentality of the 17th century. “This Is the North (Travelogue #2)” paints a chiming, analog landscape over which Peake mutters, “Like all beautiful flowers, we needed our rain,” while “Malkin Cat Trapped Behind a Wall” mixes wind and 8-bit synths, like opening a digital greeting card in a gale. When the sci-fi noises become too much, Peake compensates with black humor, as she does on “From the Grave to the Freschos Late (Travelogue #4),” where she discovers a witch’s grave and then accidentally backs her car into a judge’s Jaguar.
Occasionally, Pendle Town’s dark history seems to absorb the actress completely, and Honer and Flannagan turn up the creepiness as she lets her emotions run wild. The humor on these tracks is embittered and scathing: “Her Kind (Anne Sexton Poem)” finds Peake reciting a confession while keyboards squeal like banshees, and on “Trial by Jiggery Pokery” she addresses a long dismissed jury, muttering, “Unfortunately, for people like us, we have never known a happy ending.” The two producers don’t let her sulk for long, and 1612 Underture is most effective when the curious synth tones play over quips about poky limestone villages and “suppers for the worms and the owls.” “Ghost of Old Lizzy Southerns Returns” closes the proceedings with Peake cursing everything about 2012 that ails her, including cheap TV programs. This may ruffle the feathers of some TV execs, but if 1612 Underture is any indication, she could quit her day job and have a prosperous career recording quirky, investigative audiobooks.