Layers of Ages
There has almost been musical fracking within the traditional folk realm. There are bands now who are folk rock, alternative folk, indie folk, goth folk, jazz folk, the permutations and fusions seem to be multiplying by the week.
|Peter Knight's Gigspanner|
Steeleye Span's Peter Knight with Roger Flack and Vincent Salzfaas have got the balance spot on. They have kept the core of their music traditional but have fused sympathetic and harmonious strands to it.
The gentle opening of The Bows of London brings a dark tale which includes making instruments from a woman's bones. The light tone and Knight's gentle singing belies the macabre subjects and even his light and slightly flippant fiddle playing gives no indication of the sinister narrative in such a wonderful musical paradox.
Just by the first track you know this album is something special.
When dealing with ingrained and universally known tunes you have to be so careful if you give them a new treatment. It is so easy to get listeners' backs up when rearranging songs which they hold dear.
However, with She Moved Through The Fair Knight's luxurious and excellent fiddle playing is just incredibly. It interprets a song known the world over keeping its roots very much in the traditional camp but with each new strand adding a flourishing new branch of gorgeous sound. It almost as if it's been fused with that beautiful piece of music The Lark Ascending. At more than eight minutes long there is plenty for listeners to get their teeth into, so to speak, and while the tune is kept simple the complexity of sounds brought together is just a sheer delight and is another example of painting with music.
Although it does fly off at tangents the trio bring it back to its roots at the very end.
When you hear the throaty grind of Knight's strings on Death and the Lady you know there is another sinister tune in the air. This is a conversation between a woman and the grim reaper. The build up is atmospheric with Flack's Dire Straits-style picking accenting the throbbing tune.The vocals eerily fit what Death could well sound like, this is again one of those wonderful narrative songs that folk was built upon, and Gigspanner do it well. The brooding beat builds slowly and you are not sure you want to get to the end, this is a song best listened to from under the bedclothes.
One of the things about this album is that each track seems to outdo the previous in terms of complexity, atmospheric sound and the tale it tells. Mad Tom of Bedlam is the unsavoury story of the tourism of prurience where people would travel to gawp at the unfortunate inhabitants of the infamous Bethlem Hospital.
There is an element of madness in this song and Flack's wailing guitar seems to epitomise that, but what's not clear is if it's the madness of the inmates or the tourism where you can come and see for a penny. Either way it's an atmospheric tune which is just brilliantly constructed.
The gently and flowing opening of the King of the Fairies definitely has gypsy blood in it which soon gives way to more of a jazz feel with Knight producing a swaggering sound on the fiddle and Salzfaas providing a solid Latin beat. There is an insert which does have the ring of The Devil Went Down To Georgia, whether this was intentional, who knows. The truth is, it doesn't matter, this track is slick, sexy, an adjective not normally associated with folk music, and hip-swayingly hypnotic and again takes the album up another notch. Louisiana Flack is a good 'ol floorboard-stomping, arm-linking, ring-dancing, hoe down/Cajun gem. If you can sit still through the flicking fiddle playing of Knight and dancing strings which follow all through to the end then you should see a doctor either about your hearing or circulation.There is a renaissance, almost madrigal feel to A Week Before Easter it's a gentle almost fay ballad with a strong narrative, the sort of tale of woe upon which so much great folk music is founded. This throws away any allusion to modern tunes or introducing other genres into the heart of the music. It's an unapologetic, died-in-the-wool, traditional tune which should send traditionalists into raptures. It comes with Knight's softly flowing bowing, Flack's gentle picking and Salzfaas' unobtrusive rhythm keeping things moving along.
Knight again gives a masterclass in fiddle playing for another traditional and much-covered tune, Down By The Salley Gardens. The fiddle is very much at the heart of this gentle instrumental with Flack's expert picking giving just the occasional bit of colour. There are some great fiddle players on the folk circuit and Knight is definitely one of them.
Gigspanner's final track could well be a most timely song with the imposed austerity and much fear of it continuing. Hard Times of Old England opens with the pizzicato sound of Knight's fiddle. The doleful vocals do not tell a pretty tale and could almost be a bulletin set to music.
The beat under the vocals and melody give the track an ominous feel and the album goes out as it came in with a memorable and refined tune that defines this album as a serious piece of class artistry by three impressive musicians and not forgetting the contribution of Edward Blakeley.
The song tries to end on a positive note but of course it was written before the General Election. Peter Knight and Gigspanner have put together an album that in many ways shows how a folk album should be put together where the traditional takes precedence over the new without stifling it.
Layers of Ages is out now and Gigspanner will be starting a 14 date tour in June.