It is lovely to have Steeleye Span back in business again, with what seems to be a stable line-up. After all, this is their third studio album in a row with the same five members, something we are not used to. And with it also being the third studio album in two years, they are close to the production pace we saw from them at their very beginning.
One of the problems with listening to new albums from old groups is that we each have our favourite era of those groups’ history. Any new product is always compared with those “classic albums” of the past, albums that usually stood for something new and revolutionary when they first appeared. But how can you continue being revolutionary for almost four decades?
So let us forget about the past and judge Bloody Men on its own merits, the selection of songs and the performances that are at hand this very moment. I will give you a track-by-track rundown. First of all I am a little puzzled by the choice of format. You get two CDs, yet it does not feel like a full double CD. The first one contains 10 songs, clocking in at just under 47 minutes. The second is a suite of songs about the Luddites, clocking in at 16 minutes. For those of you who know your math, it is obvious that it would all fit in on one CD. One interpretation would be that they want to mark the suite as a separate work, with the actual album being the group effort, and the short one the group performing the work of one of its members, in this case Rick Kemp. But I am not sure.
Let us start with the 10-song album.
It is a brave move to open with “The Bonny Black Hare,” a song in folk rock circles very much associated with Dave Swarbrick and the Angel Delight version of Fairport. Steeleye cleverly avoid all comparisons by starting with a heavy drumbeat, soon to be joined by a bass riff. With screaming guitars and fiddles, they turn the song into heavy folk metal. They did a few songs in the similar fashion on Winter and it works very well.
In Ken Nicol, Steeleye have gained a good song writer, and a superb guitarist. Nicol contributes four songs, alone or in collaboration with other band members, on Bloody Men. The first is “The Story of the Scullion King,” based on an unsuccessful coup in the 15th century and co-written with Peter Knight. Nicol sings it over a heavy background centred around the acoustic guitar, and with Knight providing melodic interludes on the violin. Prior’s contribution shows how good she is as a harmony singer. The first highlight of the album.
“The Dreamer and the Widow” contains Nicol’s tune and Prior’s words. It is a soft song, sounding very traditional, with just Prior’s voice, some lovely acoustic guitar playing and Knight providing some wonderful violin playing to enhance the feeling of the song. And, like “The Bonny Black Hare,” the lyrics have some strong sexual references. Had this been a hip-hop album, it would surely contain a sticker with a parental warning.
Contributors to the guest book on Peter Knight’s Web page have suggested “Lord Elgin” as a possible hit single. Written by Knight, it jogs along pleasantly, with Prior using her softer register and some classic Steeleye harmonies to back her up. I am not sure about the song’s hit quality. Not bad by any means, and the chorus sticks easily in your head, but a little too mainstream for me to pick as a favourite on the album. But the sleeve notes say “This song is not what it seems on the face of it,” so maybe I am missing something. To me the obvious pick for a single comes next, “The Three Sisters,” a traditional ballad set to new music by Nicol, who also sings it. Starting with an a capella chorus, and then turning into a Status Quo-like boogie, it sounds like a follow up to “All Around My Hat,” only better and more true to the origins of the ballad itself. Once again, you have Nicol’s biting guitar licks lifting the song.
Then it is time for the compulsory instrumental, this time a set of two tunes “The First House in Connaught” and “The Lady of the House.” It starts quite low-key, only to gather pace and strength throughout. The last half contains the same interplay between the guitar and the violin as Fairport had on albums like Nine and Live (the one recorded in Sidney.) But no one can blame Steeleye for using the old folk rock tricks; after all, they had a part in inventing them.
Then it is re-recording time, with a comeback for “Cold Haily Windy Night,” first heard on the Please to See the King album. This time it is sung by Rick Kemp, who was not in the band first time they used the song. As with “The Bonny Black Hare” they turn the song into rock. It works rather well, with instrumental parts mixed with the verses.
“Whummil Bore” is the first all-traditional song on the album. We are back to the softer side of Steeleye Span, with Prior’s voice carrying the tune in the manner only she has. Liam Genockey uses his brushes for this one, Nicol’s acoustic guitar provides the main backing, with a few electric chords thrown in, there are the usual harmonies and Knight’s violin adds those extra bits to lift it. Not one of the highlights of the album, but some minutes of nice music to prepare for the big finale.
One thing I like about Steeleye albums is the extensive sleeve notes. For “The Demon of the Well” they take up a whole page in the booklet. And I must say there is a haunting story behind Ken Nicol’s song, sung here by Prior. It starts off with some lovely slide playing from Nicol, before Prior joins for the first verse. The track has gone on for almost two minutes before the rest of the band joins, to build it up. Nicol takes the chorus, before Prior adds to the haunting feeling of the songs with some hoarse whispers. A lovely version of a cruel story.
One of my all time favourite albums is the eponymous first one by the Silly Sisters (Prior and June Tabor). The closing track “Lord Gregory” sends the same shivers down my spine as that album did. Again it is Maddy Prior doing what she does best, retelling an old traditional ballad. There is nothing spectacular about the treatment. The band seems to realise that their only duty in these cases is to back the voice up and let it shine, and they do it very well.
So in all 10 tracks, and not a weak one among them. I advise you to take your time with this album. It took me about five listenings to get to grips with the fact that this is not the old Steeleye, this is the new version, just as good as the old line-ups. They may be older, but they can still deliver the goods.
And so we come to the second CD. As I mentioned earlier, this contains a suite of songs, five in all, based on the story of the Luddites, a movement about two hundred years ago that protested against machines replacing textile workers by attacking and smashing the machines. The movement started in 1811 in Nottingham and then spread. Two years later, the movement was crushed after a mass trial in York. Many of the participants were hanged.
The movement got its name from their leader, Ned Ludd or King Ludd, who maybe was just a mythical figure. The Steeleye song suite, written by Rick Kemp, concerns happenings a few years later. In 1817 new action was taken, partly as a result of the depression caused by the Napoleonic Wars. The protest ended with a march to fields outside Manchester to back a petition to the Prince Regent. There is a very good description about the background story to the suite on Park Records Web site. Select the Steeleye Span biography and you have it.
The first two songs, “Inclosure” and “Rural Retreat” paint the background picture. The second concentrates on the hardships of the people who had to rent machines to earn their pay. The chorus sings the praise of King Ludd and Captain Swing who “will restore our daily bread.” That chorus is one of the most powerful things on Bloody Men.
“Ned Ludd” is a celebration of that same man, with traditional words set to music by Kemp. The best song of the suite, with a classic rocking background, a lovely instrumental line played by the violin and the guitar in between verses and another powerful chorus with the usual strong Steeleye harmonies. “Prelude to Peterloo” is a more narrative track, with Kemp delivering a fast and furious melody line, with a record number of words, to a heavy background, with Knight’s pizzicatos well in front in the sound pictures. It ends in a short, slow melody, serving mostly as a bridge to the closing track, “Peterloo the Day.” It starts with an a capella verse. It tells of the last meeting of the protest and of how a calm meeting turned into a day of violence. Prior sings it like she sings ballads, and the band works to increase the intensity of the track as it runs. A lovely ending to the suite.
So is the song suite a bonus or part of the album? You tell me. I find there are differences in sound and arrangements between the two parts, with the first 10 tracks having a more varied sound, more centred around the guitar parts Nicol provides than the last five. With Kemp singing three of the Ludd songs it is also clearly more of his brainchild than a true band effort.
Do not let this worry you. However you choose to label the two parts, it is clear that Steeleye Span are on their way to re-establishing themselves as a major music force. My final verdict would be that there are individual tracks on both Babylon and Winter that I would put above the best ones here, but as a whole this is better. Both the former albums have tracks I skip when listening to them. This one has not, and I must have run through it at least 10 times by now. Buy and enjoy.
(Park Records, 2006)