Bluehorses’ Dragons Milk and Coal

cover, Dragons Milk and CoalBluehorses are a five-piece band based in South Wales. They are comprised of Nic Waulker, drummer, songwriter, arranger and producer; Liz Prenderghast (“Liz), electric fiddle and effects; and Emma on traditional wood-bodied fiddle. Guitarist Martyn Standing plays everything from gentle acoustic to screaming electric guitar and bassist Rob Khoo plays standard and fretless bass. Between them, they also play piano, organ, mandolin and harp; and there are guests on the album playing other instruments too. Their material includes traditonal and self-penned numbers, with Nic and Liz at the forefront of the writing and arranging, and the other members of the band also contributing on occasion.

One of the guests on this album is a third fiddle player, Debbie, who has now taken Emma’s place in the full time band line-up. This is a tremendously hard-working band, and I understand Emma was simply getting tired of life on the road. It was an amicable move, with the new girl given time to work into the band.

It was about two years ago, sometime soon after their first album was released, that I wrote a very brief review of a Bluehorsess gig for this publication. One of the things I said then was: “Traditionalists should cross the street to avoid any chance of contact, but anyone who wants a good time should get to a gig as soon as possible, where else can you hear ‘Blackleg Miner’ and a fiddle-led folk rock version of Led Zeppelin’s ‘Rock and Roll’ in the same set?”

That first album Cracking Leather Skin and Bone, despite the fact that their amazing rendition of “Rock and Roll” wasn’t included, was like a breath of fresh air (or perhaps more of a gale!) in a folk-rock field that is always in danger of becoming a little too static, too prone to becoming introverted and stale.

The album certainly didn’t please some people, who found it much too loud, rough and ready, and too much like the dreaded rock music. These five musicians make some serious noise! Even I would agree that perhaps drive and enthusiasm tended to overwhelm most attempts at subtlety, but despite that, it was, nevertheless, a very good album, especially for a first, and it made a lot of people sit up and take notice.

The band’s “front line” of two “less than traditionally clad,” female fiddlers caught the attention at live gigs too. Interestingly, seeing them once at a small festival, it was the younger element of the live audience who became hooked on the music. Many, who had dismissed folk music as something only their parent’s generation listened to, had their ears well and truly opened by hearing some folk classics like “Blackleg Miner” in a style and at a volume they could relate to. Such street cred with the teen generation has to be good for traditional music. Bluehorses don’t pretend to be a folk band, but there is folk and traditional influence a plenty in the set lists, and traditionally sympathetic song constructions, which makes them a superb crossover band alongside people like Oysterband, The Levellers and The Men They Couldn’t Hang.

Bluehorses cleverly avoided the “difficult second album” situation by recording and releasing a live album (called The Live Album) and a concert video recorded near their base in South Wales. Being live, the sound and mixing was not quite up to studio quality, but this album indicated a growing maturity and tightness to their playing, and more variation in style and arrangements than a year earlier. Considering that a full length CD and a video (with different track mixes) were taken from just the one show, means that most of the set was used with no second chances for the band. This isn’t a review of that album, but I’ll recommend it anyway for anyone who likes their folk music hot. To my regret, I haven’t yet seen the video.

Dragons Milk and Coal is therefore their second studio album, and to my mind it’s the best yet. It retains all the drive, power and raw vitality of their first album with two more years of hard work on the road honing their skills and experience. The Blue Horses are now showing a considerable maturity in style, arrangements and song presentation, and they well deserve the increasing media attention and growing fan base they are attracting.

The album title is, of course, a reference to their base in South Wales and what the area is known for. The track of the same name, which opens the CD, is a song looking back at the area’s history. But this isn’t a soppy sentimental nostalgic look back at better days. The second track, “Dya,” (translation: “do you”) is a complex rock song lead by fiddle and banjo. Descriptions are not easy: think of it as punk folk rock with Welsh bluegrass tendencies. Actually parts of it wouldn’t be that out of place on a Levellers album.

The third track, “Liberty,” a song about freedom, was intended to be shorter but, to quote the notes, “the fadeout was rocking along nicely so we had no choice but to leave it in.” This one is perfect for the person who complains about tracks fading out just when they get going.

“Barbera Allen” is traditional. Oddly, the notes say only the words are traditional, but I can recognise the intro to “She walked through the Fair.” So, there are some trad tunes around in there too. I can almost imagine Steeleye Span doing this in a considerably more discrete and delicate arrangement. It’s the sort of modern/traditional mixture that they used to excel at and that Bluehorses have updated for the Nineties.

“Rabbit in the Headlights” is a retake on a song from the band’s earlier set list, less threatening and heavy in this version. It also adds a third fiddle played by Debs Peake. It is followed by “Goodbye,” which starts with a gentle recorder introduction from Carolyn Peters before winding into a nice bit of fiddle lead rock between verses.

Track 7, a sad and reflective ballad, begins with a gentle introduction with acoustic guitar and voice. It was written after a visit to the World War One battlefields in France, and ends quietly with a spoken poem over an harp accompaniment. It is quite a contrast from the good time rock-folk of most of the album, and illustrates the range of styles the band are capable of.

“Old Haslam’s Bits” apparently came about from a suggestion that they should try some Morris tunes. It seems the tunes didn’t come out quite as the average Morris dancer might expect. Nevertheless, the result is a fine set of lively traditional dance tunes. I defy anyone to hear this live and keep still. “Witch in Wedlock” is, to quote the notes, about “a bizarre fantasy of female domination.” But don’t worry. You can let the kids hear it; it’s not “that” sort of domination. Liz’s notes say of this song: “let them out of the kitchen to polish the cymbals once too often and they start getting ideas,” which says more about the stereotypical view of a woman’s place in a rock band and puts her usage of the word “domination” in perspective. The three other tracks are “Passer By,” “Dark Circle,” and the last track, “Mining Song,” written by Liz about her grandfather, neatly returning to the historical theme of track one.

One of the endearing features of Bluehorses is that the words, the musical arrangements, and the stage introductions are not humour-free. Bluehorses will rock it up, dress up and write lyrics that may at times suggest all sorts of extremes. Yet underneath that stage-craft is a sense of humour and fun, and a genuine warmth for each other, the music and their fans, which on a superficial level seems at odds with their image. The CD contains a secret track, which isn’t that secret, as it’s listed on the insert, so “bonus track” is more accurate. But listen to it, and the humour is very clear.

To make an excellent CD even better, it would have been nice to have all the lyrics printed in the insert. Given the volume and complexity of the sound, and Liz’s Welsh accent, the words can be difficult to follow at times, but that’s hardly an important complaint. The insert notes are generally very good, giving an insight into the background of each song and indirectly quite a good insight into the philosophy of the band. They do also include lyrics to some songs.

Those people who liked Bluehorses’ first album will love this one. People who found the first album too “un-subtle” might well find this one more to their taste. This recording has far more maturity, subtlety and variation in the way the songs are arranged, and it has a far wider range of sound and atmosphere, and more instrumental variations thanks to a number of guest musicians. Anyone who likes loud, lively, fun, slightly punk-flavoured pub style folk-rock will simply love any of the Bluehorses albums. They are all very good. This one however is the best yet, and to my mind, it’s up there with the likes of Oysterband and The Men They Couldn’t Hang for both its musicianship, and its blend of traditional and new. With a running time of almost 70 minutes you also get a lot of music for your money, what more could anyone ask?

(Native Spirit, 1999)

Diverse Voices

Diverse Voices is our catch-all for writers and other staffers who did but a few reviews or other writings for us. They are credited at the beginning of the actual writing if we know who they are which we don't always. It also includes material by writers that first appeared in the Sleeping Hedgehog, our in-house newsletter for staff and readers here. Some material is drawn from Folk Tales, Mostly Folk and Roots & Branches, three other publications we've done.

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