Thursday, 30 August 2018

Steeleye Span



"Steeleye Span is like a bus. It goes along, and people get on and get off it. Sometimes the bus goes along the route you want to go, and sometimes it turns off, so you get off" - Maddy Prior 

Hark! The Village Wait (1970)


This was the first album from Steeleye Span, and the only one to feature Ashley HutchingsTerry and Gay WoodsMaddy Prior and Tim Hart. It was an album that showed their desire to merge folk music with rock instrumentation.

A-Calling On Song is a brief a capella introduction to what we are about to hear, “so now you’ve heard our intention, we’ll play on to the beat of the drum”, they sing, and, duly summoned, a powerful drum begins The Blacksmith. It is a suitably powerful narrative ballad of pledged love and we are introduced for the first time to the crystal clear medieval-sounding voice of the marvellous Maddy Prior. This is a strong, confident song to begin with and the quality is continued with the evocative Fisherman’s Wife. Although the band have yet to go “full electric”, they certainly are not just acoustic guitar and fiddles. Drums are liberally employed as is bass guitar. It is still folk music, though, but played with these two essentially rock instruments backing it. Electric guitar does appear too, to great effect, at times.

Blackleg Miner is an early Steeleye Span classic. Tim Hart is on lead vocals on this biting condemnation of a miner breaking a strike. It is backed by a thumping drum and cutting guitar sound. Maddy Prior returns for the solid, muscular, bassy The Dark-Eyed Sailor and she is joined, as she is on many tracks on this album, by Gay Woods, who would return many years later to replace Prior when she left the group for a while. A harmonium adds an attractive backing to this one too. The song is rather reminiscent of some of the material Pentangle did around the same time. Copshawholme Fair has some psychedelic-sounding electric guitar like something by The Velvet Underground. and some appealing, melodic mandolin parts. Prior’s voice soars confidently over both, however. She contributes similarly, with Woods, on the harmonious All Things Are Quite SilentThe Hills Of Greenmore is a mid-pace, male vocal, solidly rock number with some excellent rock drumming.

My Johnny Was A Shoemaker is a short a capella. Lowlands Of Holland is the most conventional, rock-style song on the album, with a typical rock drum pattern and rock bass guitar. It is an evocative, lengthy narrative ballad with a seafaring theme. It is a most atmospheric and powerful song, augmented by some excellent guitar and fiddle. 
Twa Corbies (pictured) is another short, largely vocal number, with a bit of percussion and bass. One Night As I Lay On My Bed is a mandolin-driven strong number, once again with some solid drums. Incidentally, the “wait” in the title is not referring to “waiting”, but to a group of village musicians called a “wait”. “Hark”, meaning “listen” - “listen to the village band”, basically. Overall, this was a most impressive debut, and many of the songs went on to be played by the band for many years, demonstrating the strength of the material.

Please To See The King (1971)

For their second offering, Steeleye Span continued playing folk music with concessions to electric rock. The rock drums of their debut album, Hark! The Village Wait were no longer present here (which was a shame) and the very distinctive harsh electric guitar sound was to the fore. This is a far bleaker album than its predecessor. Very much a dense, cold wintry album, for me. It does have considerable atmosphere, nevertheless.
                                 
The songs are again all traditional. The band’s hearts are still very much set in the past, but using contemporary electric backing. The Blacksmith (re-worked from the first album, completely differently) is a stark, vocal ballad sung against a cutting, industrial solo electric guitar. A bit of bass comes in half way through, but it is largely Maddy Prior’s strong, dominating voice plus a few vocal harmonies. The tale is one of unrequited, frustrated love. 

The bleakness expressed in the title of Cold, Haily, Windy Night is reflected in another clunking, solid guitar sound, backed by some effective fiddle (violinist Peter Knight had now joined the band). This song is a male-female duet. The starkness of sound had been fine on these first two atmospheric songs, but it doesn’t quite work when applied to the instrumental Jigs Medley that is up next, rendering them a bit too harsh and comparatively lifeless. The jigs as performed on subsequent albums were much better, with Peter Knight given far more license to improvise. These here suffer from a slightly dull sound.

Prince Charlie Stuart (pictured) is a melodically sung lament from the Jacobean times, with the guitar sounding skirling, like bagpipes. Maddy Prior’s soaring voice is excellent on this one. 
The Boys Of Bedlam is a fiddle-driven, male vocal real ale pub folk song. It has an excellent bass solo part in the middle. The male voices continue on the slighty irritating False Knight On The Road with its vocals sung so quickly as to almost render them incomprehensible. The fiddle and electric guitar backing is atmospheric, however. Maddy Prior is back for the fetching, harmonious The Lark In The Morning which once again features some killer guitar and fiddle, laying down the basis of the group’s sound for the next few years (three more albums). Female Drummer has a classic Steeleye guitar riff, the like of which they would recycle many more times. Maddy Prior sings of a tale, as the title suggests, of a young girl who became a drummer in the army, dressing up as a boy in order to do so, until she was betrayed. This theme is also expressed on Pentangle's A Maid That's Deep In Love, about a girl who went to sea dressed as a man.

The King is one of those short, a capella, multi-voice songs they had come to specialise in. Lovely On the Water is my favourite song from the album, a haunting, beautiful vocal from Maddy Prior over a slightly Eastern-sounding solo guitar. The closer, a bizarre cover of Buddy Holly’s Rave On with annoying staccato, stuttering parts on the vocal, is completely incongruous and superfluous. They would do this sort of thing again, however, notably on Now We Are Six. Overall, I prefer the previous album, but this one is not without its sombre appeal.


Ten Man Mop, Or Mr. Reservoir Butler Rides Again (1971)

Again eschewing drums after using them on their debut album, but not on their second, Steeleye Span served up some more traditional folk songs backed mainly by the jarring electric guitar, bass and assorted string instruments. The album is very much in the vein of the previous album, Please To See The King, but it is slighter lighter in tone and less bleak. Despite the electric guitar, it is one of the group’s purest folk albums. There really isn’t much “rock” to be found at all, certainly not in comparison to Hark! The Village Wait.                    
Gower Wassail has all the group’s members taking turns on lead vocals over what was by now fast becoming a trademark, sightly menacing guitar. The song is a classic example of Steeleye’s use of electric guitar to back folk songs. When reviewing the previous album, I criticised the Jigs medley for having a bit of a sombre tone to it. This is not the case here - the jigs are delivered in true lively, jaunty and exhilarating style. Fiddle, mandolin, finger-picking guitar are all featured and a rousing time is had by all. More of your best ale please, Landlord. Four Nights Drunk is a male vocal condemnation of a drunken man sung in traditional folk style over a solo fiddle backing. The fiddle is excellent but the vocal a little irritating. The song ends with an impressive “jig” instrumental part that is the song’s best bit, by far.

When I Was On Horseback sees the first solo outing for the fine voice of Maddy Prior, singing an Irish lament against a bassy, violin and guitar backing. The song is a mounrnful one, and last six minutes, but it is evocative and full of haunting atmosphere. 
Marrowbones is one of the album’s most essential folk songs, with a “farra-de-diddle-la-de-lay” refrain sung lustily over a folky fiddle backing. The mysterious Captain Coulston has an intoxicating bass and electric guitar intro and an eerily appealing vocal from Maddy Prior. The Reels that come next are delightfully played, once again lively and refreshing. Wee Weaver is a plaintive Prior vocal-violin lament and is another piece of pure folk. Skewball is a finger-picking backed number about horse racing. This one is very traditional folk as well, another one with heavy Irish influences. It has some seriously heavy electric guitar interjections too. General Taylor is sung by all the group a capellaThis album is probably Steeleye Span’s most essentially folk album, with the fewest electric stylings or enhancements, more vocals, more fiddle, more traditional inflections to the songs. The “folk songs played with a rock backing” concept that was so impressive on their debut album was in danger of becoming a bit forgotten here.

Below The Salt (1972)

After three albums experimenting to greater and lesser extents with “electric folk” and changing members, this was Steeleye Span’s first album with what would be, for many, one of their most memorable line-ups. Martin Carthy and Ashley Hutchings had left and Rick Kemp (bass) and Bob Johnson (guitar) had joined Tim HartPeter Knight and Maddy Prior. Despite the continued lack of drums, the sound now had a much more full, polished tone and, in many ways, this is the group’s first great album. Steeleye Span were fast becoming the UK’s foremost folk/rock band, leaving groups like Fairport Convention’s latest incarnation as well as Fotheringay, Pentangle and The Strawbs in their wake.
                            
Spotted Cow is a jaunty, electric riff-driven Maddy Prior vocal song, with a full, impressive sound. Prior’s voice is crystal clear, as indeed it is on the rousing, hymnal, a capella Rosebud In June. the group all sing harmoniously together, as if in church, but they sing of when “a lad takes his lass on the green, green grass…”. There has always been an earthy, lusty side to Steeleye Span. The by now obligatory Jigs (Medley) is an excellent one - lively, uplifting and well played with a variety of instrumentation and a clear, bassy, stereo sound (particularly when compared to the dense sound of the jigs on Please To See The King). The sound is now harder, more warm, solid and muscular. This is exemplified on the powerful, changeable Sheepcrook And Black Dog. The guitar is superb on here, less harsh than on previous albums and Prior’s voice is stunningly versatile. 

Royal Forester is another Prior-led classic piece of Steeleye folk, augmented by some excellent bass, guitar and fiddle. The harsh, bleak sound of Please To See The King and the ale-quaffing pure folk of Ten Map Mop had been refined considerably on here and the rock potential of Hark! The Village Wait was being explored again.

King Henry is without doubt, the first true Steeleye Span classic. A seven minute narrative tale with all members contributing vocals, wonderful varied instrumentation and changes of pace. It has a truly fantastic sound quality too. Peter Knight’s violin is superb thoughout. 
The quality continues on the male vocal-led John Barleycorn. Maddy Prior is back on vocals for the beguiling Saucy Sailor, which ends this all too short and excellent album. Definitely one of Steeleye Span’s finest offerings. The heart and soul of electric traditional folk. Also included is the Latin seasonal a capella incantation, Gaudete, which gave the band their unlikely first hit single.

Parcel Of Rogues (1973)
                    
Perhaps, more than any other of their many albums, this is Steeleye Span's quintessential "electric folk" offering. The traditional folk songs and intricate vocal harmonies of their first few albums were now augmented by a searing, sharp, cleaving electric guitar and, on a couple of tracks, a full drum kit was now used, as opposed to the occasional single drum. The guitar is amplified considerably and adds an incisive loudness to the often quiet folk songs, maybe helping to express one of the album's theme - the Thomas Hardy-esque one of social change from the old and traditional to the new. The electric guitar, of course, represented the new. There is no throwaway indulgent "filler" on this album, as on a couple of their later works. Quality folk rock all the way, similar to Fairport Convention's Liege And Lief.
         

The opener, One Misty Moisty Morning, sees new use of electric guitar knows no bounds on this track, even wah-wah is used above Maddy Prior's soaring folk voice. It is a narrative, rousing folk song backed by the afore-mentioned guitar, plus bass and some razor-sharp acoustic guitars. Alison Gross is an amusing but dark tale of a young man pressurised by an ugly old witch into "relations". He refuses and she turns him via spell, into a worm. A powerful electric guitar riff adds to the tension of the song. The Bold Poachers begins in a more understated, male voice style, backed with acoustic guitar and the gentle, lilting bass, this song also ends with some pedal steel guitar parts as it fades out. The tale is, as the tale suggests, about a couple of poachers, a crime which was treated far more seriously in the 18th century, from whence the song dates. 

The Ups And Downs is a harmonious very "folky" song. Less electric attack on this one. More acoustic. Great vocal harmonies from the whole group and a traditional "reel" style backing and "foddle de diddle" lyrics. Ideal for ale swilling and country dancing. It also mentions the town I grew up in - Aylesbury in Buckinghamshire. Robbery With Violins is an exciting, lively Irish jig-style instrumental (indeed, it is better known as "The Bank Of Ireland" and is used in the film "Titanic") that shows off violin virtuoso Peter Knight's skills after an almost funky wah-wah intro. Unfortunately a little too short. Just as you are enjoying it, it ends. For The Wee Wee Man full drums are utilised. Excellent male voice harmonies, catchy chorus and a pounding beat and the now ubiquitous electric guitar chopping away. An Appalachian dulcimer is used here too, to great effect near the end. 

The Weaver And The Factory Maid is one of the album's purest folk songs, acoustically instrumented, largely more highly impressive violin, its tale reflects the tension between industry and country. Maddy Prior's vocal is both clear and mournful. Overdubbing is used so that her voice appears out of three channels, as if three women are singing. A single drum is added to some parts of the song to great effect. Rogues In A Nation has a stunning, moving a capella vocal introduction, backed again by one drum. There is some excellent guitar-violin interplay at the end too. The lyrics are an adaptation of Robert Burns' poem denouncing the 1707 Act Of Union between England and Scotland.

Cam Ye O'er Frae France is the album's rollicking highpoint, with Maddy Prior singing in Borders dialect about George 1 and his mistress - "riding on a goosie" in somewhat saucy terms against a crashing electric and sharp acoustic backing and a full drum sound, often in military marching style. As the album comes to a close, the last two tracks are perhaps the most "folky" and, indeed, the most beautiful. On Hares On The Mountain, overdubbing is used so that Peter Knight's two mandolins, recorders and harmonium are heard together, resulting in a most melodious outcome. Bob Johnson contributes a sad sounding vocal on this one too. 
Bonny Moorhen is another lovely track that sees Maddy Prior on great vocal form, again. Crystal clear, knife through butter acoustic guitars ring like a bell behind Prior's haunting vocal and a lovely, deep bass guitar underpinning the song too.

Now We Are Six (1974)

This is an album that marks even more of a sea change for Steeleye Span. Having produced a true electric folk rock classic in the previous year's Parcel Of Rogues they now went into full rock band mode by adding rock drummer Nigel Pegrum to their five members, hence the title borrowed from A.A. Milne's Winnie The Pooh. It is a "curate's egg" of an album (good in parts, as the phrase supposedly means, but I have never understood why). There is some truly excellent material on here, but there also a few examples of indulgent drivel, possibly the result of some inebriated time in the studio, or possibly just a gross misjudgement (the group have admitted to both, I believe). So, the album gets halfway to being the full on folk rock album it set out to be. The follow-up, Commoner's Crown, did the job far more effectively, but the good stuff on this album cannot be ignored.
                 
Seven Hundred Elves is a good start. A fast paced, full band backed slightly unnerving tale of woodland elves coming from out of the woods to take their revenge on the callous farmer who chopped down the trees in the wood, destroying their habitat. Drink Down The Moon/Cuckoo starts as a slow, beautiful ballad highlighting Maddy Prior's voice and ends as an upbeat, violin jig with lyrics about the cuckoo and its proclivities for squatting in other birds' nests. Now We Are Six is the first of two unforgivable songs where the band, inexplicably, put on high child-like voices and try to sound a children's choir. They just about get away with it on this one, as it is not a bad song, but only just. 

Thomas The Rhymer. Now, that's more like it - a true Steeleye Span classic. Adapting the folk legend of "Thomas The Rhymer", a Scottish Borders character from a village called Earlston (where he is commemorated to this day) who has dalliances with the Queen of Elfland. The song undergoes many changes in pace and ambience. Some slow, haunting build up lead in and out of the heavy electric guitar riff of the rousing "harp and carp, come along with me" chorus and we get to hear Nigel Pegrum's true value on the drums for the first time. Then it is back to the insistent build up to the final chorus, with Maddy Prior on fine form - "don't you see yon bonny, bonny road....". Great stuff.

The Mooncoin Jig is a fiddle and mandolin dominated and highly appealing instrumental, Irish-style jig. Enjoyable, as these jigs always are. 
Edwin is a narrative rock and violin chugger of a song, sung on lead by Rick Kemp concerning, it would seem, the killing of a young man, Edwin, by the parents of his young lover and the grief of the young girl, Emma, for her lost love. A seriously heavy guitar riff right at the end, hinting at the band's new direction. Long A-Growing is a sad tale, sung beautifully by Maddy Prior of a young man who wishes to grow to win his maiden's love, he does indeed grow, marries, has a child, then dies at eighteen. A tragic tale, as many of these traditional folk tales are. The lively Two Magicians is a traditional, very "folky" song with a tongue-twisting chorus and a tale of a young girl who doesn't fancy the idea of losing her maidenhead to a grubby, dusty blacksmith and ends up becoming a nun. Some killer violin from Peter Knight too.

Twinkle Twinkle Little Star is the other big "children's voices" mistake. Unlistenable. What were they thinking? They have since admitted the same thing. 
To Know Him Is To Love Him is a strange ending to what could have been a corker of an album. A cover of The Teddy BearsPhil Spector-produced late 50s hit, featuring, surprisingly, David Bowie on saxophone. Despite that, it's not great, to be honest.

Commoners' Crown (1975)
                 
The second of Steeleye Span’s fully-fledged electric folk albums and the last before new producer Mike Batt would help them achieve chart success. After Now We Are Six, with its occasional lapse into poor quality indulgence, this was, thankfully, a far more well-rounded and credible album. Immaculately played, a wonderful mix of heavy guitar riffs, strong drums and folky fiddle parts and, of course, Maddy Prior’s almost medieval voice, the songs on this album are strong and often tragic, as many of these traditional folk ballads were.

Little Sir Hugh is about the murder of a young boy and the frightening tale of Long Lankin involves the murder (and possible rape) of a housewife on her own in her house by a mysterious visitor. It is a truly unnerving song. These songs, grisly as they are, are the album’s highlights.

There is also the customary fiddle reel, this time based upon a pice by Bach entitled Bach Goes To Limerick, which merges Bach’s music with an Irish country reel. 
Demon Lover is a harmonious, catchy and tuneful Irish-sounding song, but to this day I have no idea what it is about and the same applies to the perplexing Elf Call. The latter has a great drum and guitar sound though. Dogs And Ferrets is an appealing slice of traditional ale-swilling English country folk. Sung a capella It lifts the mood somewhat after the morbid Long Lankin. As indeed does the intriguing, lilting folk air of Galtee Farmer, backed by an insistent, throbbing electric guitar. Weary Cutters is an Irish-sourced a capella folk ballad, faultlessly sung by Prior and New York Girls is a rousing bar-room folk song based in New York, presumably sung there by immigrants from Ireland in the late 18th/early 19th century. It suddenly finishes for some reason. 

All Around My Hat (1975)
                           
This was Steeleye Span’s long-waited Mike Batt-produced shot at the big time. Trying for a more commercial, chart-friendly style of folk-rock, Batt encouraged them to up the volume on the electric guitars and drums and they certainly do that on some truly excellent tracks - the haunting tale of female unfaithfulness that is Black Jack Davy, the rousing and exhilarating fast fiddle plus electric guitar rock of Hard Times Of Old England and, of course, the only real hit single they ever had (not including the Christmas novelty Gaudete) in the rumbustuous singalong fun of All Around My Hat.

Cadgwith Anthem is a beautiful a Capella, with a lovely brass part at the end, that sees the band returning to their true folk roots, as indeed does the instrumental Sum WavesThe Wife Of Usher's Well is a beautifully melodious (with all vocalists taking roles), but sad tale of a wife who loses all three of her sons, presumably in some overseas conflict. Gamble Gold (Robin Hood) is pleasant enough, though - harmonious vocals and a great drum sound. Dance With Me is another tuneful romp based, apparently, on a Scandinavian folk song, while Bachelors' Hall has an air of grandiose mystery about it, plus some killer guitar and violin, particularly at the end.

One listen to Maddy Prior’s voice soaring along with the band as the rock kicks in on Hard Times Of Old England (scene pictured below) is just such a pleasure. Along with The Wife Of Usher’s Well, with Peter Knight’s stunning violin work, two of the band’s finest moments. Furthermore you still can’t beat Maddy’s vocal on All Around My Hat.

Rocket Cottage (1976)

Along with its predecessor, this is possibly Steeleye Span’s finest example of commercial folk rock. Once again produced by Mike Batt of Wombles “fame” (indeed, a little known fact is that several members of Steeleye Span were the musicians behind The Wombles, even donning Womble costumes to appear on “Top Of The Pops” as the furry litter picker-uppers), the album perfectly blended traditional British folk songs with a rousing electric guitar and pounding drum sound. Then, of course, as always, there was vocalist Maddy Prior’s excellent folk voice.

The album is perhaps the band's most rock-influenced album, with very prominent guitars and a strong rhythm section. Some found it too overpowering, though. Certainly, the folk purists among the band’s following were not too happy with the album, seeing it as a commercial sell-out. As it was, it didn’t sell well, as punk was starting to be the order of the day by its release. The previous album had sold well, however, maybe this one just came out at the wrong time.                                

Standout tracks, for me, however, are the afore-mentioned evocative narrative Sir James The Rose (pictured), and the adaptation of the hymn To Be A Pilgrim - the haunting Fighting For StrangersLondon is a fine, vocally harmonious opener and the beguiling Orfeo/Nathan's Reel sees the band even getting a little funky at times with a bit of wah-wah guitar. The Bosnian Hornpipes is a short a capella bit of vocal fun. The Twelve Witches is a nod to a more folky, vocal-dominated past and The Brown Girl is an understated classic, actually. It even has a semi-funky, soulful bit in the middle. The wah-wah comes out again for the upbeat, vibrant Irish-influenced instrumental, Sligo Maid and funky guitar blends with traditional Irish fiddle. Top drumming from Nigel Pegrum on this one too.

The final track, The Drunkard, sees the band begin it with an impromptu version of Camptown Races which singer Maddy Prior admits was done at a time of high drunkenness. Eventually, she pulls a superb vocal performance out of her hat, somehow. Put the best tracks from this and the previous album together and you would have a great album.One sensed that band were at something of a crossroads at this point. Indeed, unhappy with having to go along with this overly commercial approach, though, members Peter Knight and Bob Johnson left the band. I have to say I feel they were overreacting a bit. It is still a decidedly folky album in parts. Knight would return several years later, however.


Storm Force Ten (1977)


After the (comparative) success of Rocket Cottage, Steeleye Span released this follow-up directly into the maelstrom of punk. It was duly overlooked and has remained so. That is a bit of a shame because it is not a bad album at all. 


Steeleye stalwarts Bob Johnson and Peter Knight had left after the previous album and one-time member Martin Carthy re-joined the band, briefly, along with accordionist John Kirkpatrick. The latter's distinctive sound replaced the fiddle (the first time a Steeleye album did not feature that instrument), although Carthy's chunky guitar ensured that the folk rock from the previous three years remained. The accordion makes for a slightly different sound on this album, and it fits the nautical theme of several of the songs. I like its use, I have to say - it is breezy and lively. 


The album included two Bertolt Brecht covers in the haunting The Wife Of The Solider and The Black Freighter, the latter of which would seem ideally suited both to the group and the general sea-faring vibe of the album. The energetic melody of Seventeen Come Sunday recalls the jigs of the early days, albeit driven along by Kirkpatrick's lusty accordion while The Treadmill Song is an industrial revolution tale of workers' hardships. Some Rival and the enjoyable Awake, Awake are both classic Steeleye electric folk rock ballads and the album's high point is the lengthy narrative of press-ganging into the navy and service with Nelson of The VictoryThe a capella Sweep, Chimney Sweep is perfectly harmonious, although I always prefer the songs with instrumentation.

This was an end of and era release and after this, the band split for a while but the one constant on the album and in the band thus far was the versatile voice of Maddy Prior, who had the ability to be haunting, serious, uplifting, frisky, saucy and severe as to the demands of the song.


Sails Of Silver (1980)


For this "treading water" album, three years later, Carthy and Kirkpatrick were replaced by - guess who? Johnson and Knight. Steeleye's members' musical chairs continued. This is another comparatively overlooked and underrated album that is not at all bad, containing a couple of classics on it too. It was the first album to feature songs written by the band as opposed to adaptations of traditional ballads, although they are written very much in that style. 


The two standouts are the sad tale of emigration in Gone To America, which features a soaring Maddy Prior vocal, and the moving, evocative shipwreck narrative of Let Her Go Down, a song written by Knight after he had spent his time away from the band as a commercial fisherman off the coast of Hastings. Sails Of Silver is a catchy, riffy folk rocker in typical Steeleye style while My Love is a Peter Knight-led romantic ballad. Barnet Fair is an infectious and melodic singalong number that just lifts the spirits. None of this material is "1980" at all but who cares? Steeleye were never ones to follow musical trends. Senior Service follows on from Barnet Fair in similar riff-driven and poppy fashion. It has another irresistible, lusty chorus. Where Are They Now is also a rousing Prior-dominated ballad in the Gone To America style. Longbone actually does have a slight new wave feel in its jaunty beat (only just, though). 


Steeleye always liked a traditional hymn and they give us one here as the ballad Marigold morphs into a fine rendition of Harvest Home. This subtly appealing and at times most energising album ends with the tuneful and once more uplifting Tell Me Why. These mid-period Steeleye albums never quite got the credit they deserved, many seeming to have reservations about the fact that they didn't fit in with contemporary musical trends. As I said earlier - since when did that matter? The band would disappear for a while after this, however, returning six years later with a new line up. 

Back In Line (1986)

       
This is an almost forgotten album from Steeleye Span's "wilderness years" in the 1980s. It is a bit of a shame that nobody has ever bothered about it much, because it contains some good material. I really quite like this album. It doesn't get as many listenings as it deserves, I must admit. Each time I listen to it, however, I like it more and more. It has a polished, solid guitar and violin-driven rock sound to it and some punchy drums. The sound quality is excellent.


Edward is a brooding but melodic and catchy number to kick the album off, featuring Bob Johnson on vocals, unusually. Steeleye Span have started playing the song again live in recent years.

Isabel is about the imprisonment in an outdoor cage (pictured, left) of Isabella Macduff, paramour of Robert The Bruce of Scotland. It is a rousing, stately-sounding folk rock ballad with a stirring vocal from Maddy Prior, and some evocative violin from the always impressive Peter Knight. It is a marvellously atmospheric and touching song. Lady Diamond is an upbeat, lively rock number, about a young lad in service falling for a lady, once again featuring some excellent violin from Peter Knight. His skills are well and truly brought to the fore on the classical violin instrumental Canon By TelemannPeace On The Border as with Edward (possibly), IsabelTake My Heart and Lanercost concerns the medieval Scottish Wars of Independence. It is another uplifting number. Blackleg Miner is a slightly funky live re-working of the band's song from the early seventies, featuring on their debut album Hark! The Village Wait in 1970. It is a 19th century Northumbrian song about the 1844 miners strike. It is controversial for threatening death on those "blacklegs" who broke the strike and worked. 

White Man is a condemnation of colonialism and slavery. It has vague hints of South African township music about it. Covering various different events and issues in history, this is one of Steeleye Span's most overtly political albums. Lanercost refers to a North Cumbrian village and priory from which the malevolent Edward 1 attempted to subdue the Scots. It is a haunting, classically-influenced number. It utilises the Kyrie Eleison, a Christian liturgy. Scarecrow jumps several hundred years forward to the English Civil War and is an appealing, lively song (despite its grim subject matter) about The Battle Of Cropredy BridgeTake My Heart sees us return to Robert The Bruce and his request that his heart be buried in The Holy Land. In fact, his heart was buried at Melrose Abbey, also according to his instructions, apparently. This is a seriously underrated Steeleye Span album. I am not quite sure why it has never particularly found favour, even amongst followers of the group. For me, it contains some well-delivered, rocking and historically interesting songs. Don't dismiss the album as easily as you may be tempted to do.

Tempted And Tried (1989)


After the lukewarm reception afforded to the surprisingly good Back In Line, three years earlier, a seemingly-revitalised Steeleye Span produced an album that gained more critical praise and has gone down as being one of their better offerings from this transitional period. It reverted to using traditional songs once more amongst a few written by the groups and it included some lively instrumental reels for the first time for a while (since Rocket Cottage I believe). Peter Knight's contribution is once again absolutely sumptuous on here and there is a nice mixture between the haunting, tragic and joyful in the album's songs, both musically and lyrically. 


Jack Hall is an energetic number to open with, with a catchy chorus and some great vocals from all involved. It has a nice mandolin backing it as well and a killer rubbery bass line. Two Butchers has Peter Knight and new member Tim Harries on vocals and is another rousing song, packed with the sort of historical-bucolic-pastoral narrative that the band always did so well. It is good to hear Knight's fiddle so dominant too.


Maddy Prior leads proceedings on the gloriously uplifting and thumping Padstow which evokes May festivals and all sorts of summer-is-a-coming jubilation. Then we get the Reels - The First House In Connaught and Sailor's Bonnet. You can never have too much of Steeleye's jigs and reels, can you? It goes without saying that Knight's fiddle is on top form but we also get some fine Irish-style bodhran-ish rhythmic percussion. Both of the reels are great, particularly the first one. Betsy Bell & Mary Gray is a sombre, mournful and dark ballad about two women trying to avoid catching the plague but who caught it from a lad who gave them food. The usual Child Ballad tragic fare. Peter Knight's marvellous violin adds to the atmosphere, tremendously.


The gloom is lifted by the jaunty Shaking Of The Sheets - although it is a "danse macabre" whose origins lay in 13th century Italy when it was danced to rid towns of the plague. It is given a Morris Dance feel here. Searching For Lambs is a gorgeously evocative and moody slower number with a really atmospheric backing (especially the keyboards), another superb violin solo and a fine Maddy Prior vocal. I love this one. Peter Knight's Seagull is a fun romp with vague South African undertones to it. The Cruel Mother is a stark piece of guitar-driven rock. Following Me is a band-penned number about a stalker - sticking with the unnerving subject matter, then, which is no surprise. The album ends with the deliciously riffy, rocky The Fox, about the cunning of the pursued animal. Let's hope he gets away, eh?


Time (1996)


Seven more years had passed before the group's next album and, on this one we saw the vocally-suffering at the time Maddy Prior asking old friend and early band member Gay Woods to come back and help out. Woods had a different and lively voice that worked well with the group, for me. I like this a lot and also and the two subsequent albums that she would appear on. 


The Prickly Bush is a fine, riffy opener on which Woods and Prior combine perfectly. Lyrically it once more concerns hanging and trying to avoid it, a common topic for many of these 18th-early 19th century ballads. The two combine effectively again on the also impressive and enjoyable The Old Maid In The GarrettHarvest Of The Moon has a melody that puts me in mind of Billy Bragg's There Is Power In A Union (Battle Cry Of Freedom). 


There is a Celtic feel that Woods (who was Irish) had brought to proceedings and this continues as she takes lead vocals on the haunting Underneath Her Apron, which incidentally was where the song's subject kept her secretly-born baby. Peter Knight's violin on this and its predecessor is (yet again) wonderful. Cutty Wren is also very mysterious and sombre, featuring some excellent drums-percussion. Woods uses her bodhran to great effect. Go From My Window furthers the understated, brooding feel of some of the album with its mournful tone. Check out the Knopfler-esque mid-song guitar too. The eight minutes-plus of The Elf Knight ploughs a similar furrow and includes male and female vocals in tandem. It also has some fine rock parts in it, and has it got some great violin? Of course it has. It continues too, on the simply sumptuous intro to the much-covered The Water Is Wide and we are treated to another outstanding mid-song guitar solo from Bob Johnson. It has a real Irish feel to it here.


The chunky rock of You Will Burn is unnerving in the threats contained in its gruesome lyrics - "we will purify your soul in the fire...." and Corbies has a moribund darkness to it as well. The Song Will Remain is a beautiful, moving Peter Knight song to close with - he had a knack with them. This was an album packed full of seriously moving music - especially that lovely crying violin - and a real Celtic influence. Great stuff indeed.


Horkstow Grange (1998)
      
This album is notable for Steeleye Span, as it the first the recorded without taliswomanic vocalist Maddy Prior (she would return a few albums later). Here she is replaced by Gay Woods, who had appeared on their 1970 debut Hark! The Village Wait. Guitarist Bob Johnson and violinist Peter Knight are still there, though. The album has some drums on a few of the tracks, but it is far more of a folk album, as opposed to a rock one. It also has a strong Irish influence in places (Gay Woods is Irish). It is an album of folky, mournful lamenting and quite an appealing one for it

The Old Turf Fire is an Irish-sounding folk song with a typical solid Steeleye rock backing and the ubiquituous impressive violin from Peter Knight. The Tricks Of London is jaunty and re-works the traditional London Bridge Is Falling Down song. Horkstow Grange tells the tale of “Steeleye Span”, a folkloric character from whom the band were named. It is amazing it took them so long to cover this. It is largely a vocal only track, with just a bit of subtle string backing.

Lord Randall is a traditional ballad from which Bob Dylan got his inspiration for A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall. It is a solid, upbeat rock number here. 
Erin is an almost anthemic traditional Irish song with a simply beautiful Peter Knight violin solo in it. Queen Mary/Hunsden House is slightly in the same vein, sung beautifully over an appealing, plucked string backing. Gay Woods’ vocal on this whole album is strong, clear and captivating, which is impessive considering she had not sung for quite a while before this unlikely return. Bonny Birdy is a male vocal traditional folk number, it is a lively one, with Woods playing the bodhran as backing. Bonny Irish Boy continues the Irish folk theme with a haunting ballad. I Wish That I Was Never Wed is a young woman’s lament about her marriage. It is a lively Irish sounding song (although I don’t think it is). 

Australia is a traditional folk number about a man being sent to Australia for petty theft. It is an often sung theme and it is done here, movingly, against a subtle acoustic folk backing. One True Love features Tim Harries on lead vocals for the first time on a melodic but plaintive love song. The Parting Glass is pretty much Woods singing solo on another ethereal mournful Irish song. Many followers of Steeleye Span were not happy with her being on lead vocals for this album. Personally, I haven’t got a problem with it. She is a different singer to Maddy Prior, the material on here is slightly different, therefore, for me, it becomes an interesting album. It is also quite a moving one in places.

Bedlam Born (2000)

After the Irish-influenced, more pure folk of 1998’s Horkstow Grange, the second “non Maddy Prior” album was completely different. It employed guest dummer Dave Mattacks far more on drums for a full, powerful rock sound. It is possibly the group’s heaviest album.
         
The opener, Well Done Liar! has Span sounding like The Rolling Stones on one of the punchiest, riffiest, rockiest tracks they ever recorded. It also has a great Peter Knight violin solo. Who Told The Butcher features Knight’s evocative, moving voice on lead (something they should have done more). It is a sad but uplifting song with an infectious chorus. I love everything about this song. John Of Ditchford has a strikingly heavy introductory guitar riff. It is a harrowing true tale of a 14th century murder. The backing is superb, crashing, searing guitar and pounding drums. I like folky Span but I also like rocky Span, so it suits me fine. Many who had complained the previous album was “too folky” were now bleating that the album was “too rock”. Folk music fans, eh? Some of the pickiest around.

I See His Blood Upon The Rose has Gay Woods (pictured below) on vocals (something she only does on five on the album’s fourteen tracks). It is an explicitly religious song, with a slow, dignified and incredibly thumping, heavy, portentous backing. Even Maddy Prior’s staunchest fans cannot deny that Woods’ voice is truly outstanding on this song. Peter Knight’s violin half way through is mysteriously beautiful. Incidentally, I met the incredibly talented Knight a few years ago. I thanked him for the fact that his music had given me forty years of pleasure. He wasn’t particularly interested. Why should he be, of course, but meeting one’s heroes can sometimes be underwhelming.

Black Swan is a beautiful, classically-influenced short instrumental interlude. The heavy vibe is back with the industrial riffs of The Beggar. As well as being muscular and hard-hitting, the sound quality on this album is superb. Peter Knight’s incredibly moving voice is back for the heartbreaking Poor Old Soldier. No-one does these sort of songs better than him. Just lovely. His haunting violin backs the odd, short spoken-word Arbour, whose thumping single drum backing is actually too resonant. There Was A Wealthy Merchant is a slow, rock ballad telling another emotive tale. The theme of a young girl dressing up as a man to follow her lover to sea has been explored before, by Pentangle on A Maid That’s Deep In Love and Steeleye on Female DrummerThe haunting Beyond The Dreaming Place has a great vocal from Woods and a searing buzzy guitar throughout. 

We Poor Labouring Men is a beautifully heavy song, with a huge rumbling bass line. It “borrows” the verse melody from the mid-seventies’ Seven Hundred ElvesGay Woods is once again outstanding on the captivating The Connemara Cradle Song. Knight’s violin is just top notch too. Stephen is a song about a boy in Bethlehem at the time Herod massacred children. It is a powerful song. White Cliffs of Dover is an experimental re-working of the classic Vera Lynn song, semi-spoken by Woods, against a sonorous industrial-sounding synthesiser backing, like something off David Bowie’s “Heroes”I think this is a superb album. One of the group’s best, harking back to those great folk-rock mid-seventies albums. Yes, Gay Woods is not Maddy Prior, but she has her own strengths. Both of the vocalists as suited to Steeleye Span’s songs, for me, anyway. I enjoy listening to them both. In many ways, I find Woods the more powerful of the two, with better enunciation on occasions. Not something easy to say, given Prior’s iconic status. Anyway, that is another debate. This is a highly recommended album. I wonder who the farm labourers were on the picture above and how they would feel to know that very pose would end up captured forever and end up on things like this. No doubt they would find it totally incomprehensible.

They Called Her Babylon (2004)


It was now 2004 and Maddy Prior and Rick Kemp returned to the band, four years after their previous release and a full eight years since Prior had recorded with them. The Gay Woods albums had been good ones, it has to be said, but there was certainly a comforting feeling to be gained from Maddy’s return. The critics dusted down all their "return to form" quotes.

A regularly visited subject was that of forced emigration and we are told here of those transported to Van Diemen's Land (Tasmania) for committing small or spurious crimes. It is delivered in archetypal fiddle-driven chunky and energetic Steeleye style. The solidity continues on the muscularly riffy Samain. Peter Knight takes lead vocals over a catchy and insistent rock backing. 


Heir Of Linne is a typical haunting but strong Maddy Prior-Peter Knight dominated ballad. Bride's Farewell is a quiet and melodic, beguiling number while Babylon is the album's big narrative tale - detailing Charlotte, Countess Of Derby's redoubtable defence of her home (Lathom House in Lancashire) for four months during the English Civil War in 1644. It is enhanced by some seriously impressive violin and guitar, mid-song. Mantle Of Green is a delicate Prior vocal, beautiful violin and acoustic guitar love ballad and Bede's Death Song is a brief, forty second medieval semi-chant. Diversus And Lazarus is deliciously riffy, as so many of the band's songs are, also, all the band's vocalists combine to great effect. Peter Knight's always sumptuous violin  is simply wonderful on the Celtic instrumental Si Begh Si Mohr


Steeleye have always loved a gruesome ballad and they serve one up here in the tale of Child Owlet, dreadfully executed for a supposed dalliance with a noble lady. What's The Life Of A Man? is a powerful, almost rock ballad to end with, lit up by a stadium rock guitar solo too. Always versatile.


Winter (2004)

This is a truly wonderful Christmas-winter album as Christmas goes electric folk rock. The UK's finest electric folk rockers lend their experienced hands and voices to this appealing collection of carols, traditional winter songs and a couple of their own seasonal compositions. Some of the material on here are among my favourite Christmas numbers of all time, and the album gets a rousing  play in my house in the period December 19th to the 25th. I find it hard to believe that anyone could not enjoy some of the songs on here. It is simply joyful in places. Traditional folk festive fare at its finest.

                             
Top of the bill, for me, are the barnstorming folk rock versions of The First Nowell (given the traditional spelling, of course) and Hark! The Herald Angels Sing, which are given the full All Around My Hat rocking treatment. 

Good King Wenceslas is delivered at a breakneck pace, full of almost punky guitar riffs, as if The Ramones are in the studio with them. In the Bleak Midwinter is just glorious, with Maddy Prior's crystal clear voice at its haunting best, accompanied by Peter Knight's evocative violin. See, Amid The Winter's Snow is awarded a lusty, hymnal delivery that just raises the spirits upon hearing. It is one of my favourite winter hymns. The remaining material are mainly traditional folk songs with a winter relevance, along with the negro spiritual Blow Your Trumpet Gabriel, the first time the group have explored that particular genre. All the album has a fine late winter's afternoon ambience to it, but those folk rock carols are just majestic. Highly recommended. Forget your Michael BublĂ© or Rod Stewart roasting their chestnuts on an open fire, put this on for half an hour.

Bloody Men (2006)

After thirty-six years of releasing high quality folk-rock, Steeleye Span proved that they could still do it with this vibrant and confident double album. The line-up was Maddy PriorRick KempPeter KnightKen Nicol and drummer Liam Genocky.
                                                    
The album kicks off with the delightfully bawdy Bonny Black Hare, which is something a young girl says can be found “under my apron”. It is full of saucy double entendres, is sung by Maddy Prior in suitably lascivious fashion ad Peter Knight plays his violin to make it sound like an electric guitar, wild and screechy. It is an excellent track, full of verve and vitality. The Story Of The Scullion King is a male vocal song written by the group, but very much in the style of the traditional ballads they had been singing for all those years. Quite what it is about is difficult to decipher. It is historical, as to be expected, but quite what incident it is describing I am unclear about. It has a rock, as opposed to folk, beat to it. The next track, The Dreamer And The Widow, is a tender ballad with Maddy Prior on lead vocal singing over a gentle acoustic guitar and violin backing. She sweetly leads on Lord Elgin as well, a melodic catchy, almost AOR-sounding band-penned tune. Once again, Peter Knight’s violin backing is sumptuous as is the lead guitar. This is a very appealing song, they seem to have discovered the knack of writing songs that sound like traditional songs, yet have a contemporary, commercial feel to them.

Three Sisters is a delightful, thoroughly infectious, upbeat number, with all members singing harmoniously over a riffy backing. I love this one. The 1st House In Connaught is a jaunty Irish jig, with Knight’s violin to the fore. Steeleye have often re-worked previously recorded songs, this jig is re-worked from 1989’s Tempted And Tried and next they do it again with Cold, Haily, Windy Night from 1971’s Please To See The King, which is given a pulsating rock makeover compared to the bleak original rendering of it. 

Whummil Bore is a song about a servant lad looking through a bore-hole in the wall at The King’s daughter as her maids were dressing her. It is a beautifully sung song by Maddy Prior, and is actually rather a moving, sad lament about his adoration of her beauty as opposed to the creepy tale it may initially seem. Demon In The Well features some addictive blues guitar over a solid, punchy insistent drum sound. It is Steeleye doing a slow folk blues. Most impressive and muscularly powerful. Lord Gregory is a dignified slow rock ballad, with more great guitar and violin.

Disc 2 is a first for Steeleye Span - a five-part suite of songs about folkloric 18th century character Ned Ludd, from whom social protest group The Luddites took thier name. They objected to the mechanisation of traditional industries. Their gripe has been somewhat misinterpreted over the years. They feared the decline of traditional skills and the erosion of workers’ rights and subsequent poor treatment more than they objected to progress. While the songs are all connected, narratively, they also function well individually. The experiment works and is immaculately played, particularly by Peter Knight, as always. Check out the solo on Ned Ludd Part 3. The songs are all appealing and catchy and the suite is most enjoyable (educational too). In conclusion, this was a very impressive, immaculately played and sung album from a group who just never seem to get old.


Cogs, Wheels & Lovers (2009)
                      
This is another in the series of excellent albums that a revitalised Steeleye Span released in the early 2000s. As always, it sources traditional folk balladry for the background and lyrics of the songs. As with most of the latter-day Steeleye albums, it features a full rock backing.

Gallant Frigate Amphitrate (pictured below) starts the album with a huge thumping rock rhythm. It is a historical seafaring song with a typically atmospheric, confident vocal from Maddy Prior. Another evocative vocal leads the melodic Locks And BoltsPeter Knight's violin and Rick Kemp's subtly strong bass are impressive on here. Creeping Jane is a lively, rousing number about a racehorse. It utilises that rock beat that the group used on All Around My Hat and Hard Times Of Old England (and also on some Wombles singles for which the band were session musicians in the mid-seventies). Again, the violin is excellent. Just As The Tide is a catchy, mid-pace piece of folk rock with another lovely vocal. You just can't beat Peter Knight's violin. It enhances every track it appears on. Ranzo is a quirky, handclappy number with Knight joining Prior on vocals over what sounds like a mandolin backing. 

The Machiner's Song is a lively, folky number that grinds to a halt, like a machine, at the end. Our Captain Cried utilises the John Wesley hymn melody from He Who Would Valiant Be that they used on 1976's Fighting For Strangers. It is a moving song. As indeed is Two Constant Lovers, which features Peter Knight's tender, plaintive voice. It is a tragic song about a young man drowning. Madam Will You Walk features some rhythmic, pounding drums and an infectiously catchy vocal from Prior. The Unquiet Grave is a haunting song with the violin again playing a big part. Thornaby Woods is a gentle folk number with another fine vocal. After it comes a "hidden track" called The Great Silkie Of Sule Skerry, which is a traditional folk song from Shetland and Orkney. It is, as you would expect, very Celtic-sounding, featuring violin and vocal only. This is an eminently listenable album. I slightly prefer 2006's excellent Bloody Men, but this certainly worth one's time.

Wintersmith (2013)

Pretty much all of Steeleye Span's huge canon of material is derived in one way or another from historical sources - ballads, poems, early folk songs and so on. Not so here. This is an album of original work based on the late Terry Pratchett's "Discworld" novels. Now, I have to admit that I have no knowledge of Pratchett's work, nor interest in it. I am a long time fan of Steeleye Span, however. I love this album. The songs are all different, many of them captivating and atmospheric and some of them heartbreakingly sad.                         

Played to the usual high standard, the album is a joy from start to finish. Personal highlights for me are the upbeat Dark Morris Song which sets the atmosphere for the album and the haunting title track, Wintersmith, which introduces us to the character of the Wintersmith. The romantic You is beautiful and The Making Of A Man is a delight. Indeed, all the tracks are enjoyable. It is like reading a book. The Good Witch is surprisingly touching, and both Fire And Ice and Crown Of Ice are robust, vibrant songs. 

The album ends with violinist Peter Knight's tour de force, the emotional We Shall Wear Midnight which sees a character from the book asking the author Pratchett how he will go on to portray her, particularly, as it seems, he wasn't long for this world (as was the case). Truly moving. The best edition to go for is the two CD edition which contains some excellent bonus tracks not considered for the original album and a number of live cuts from the accompanying "Wintersmith Tour”.


Dodgy Bastards (2016)

This is an excellent folk rock album from the legendary Steeleye Span. It is the last before the retirement of long-standing member Rick Kemp, and includes new, young violinist Jessie May Smart in place of the wonderful Peter Knight. She performs impressively as well. The album is a return to the traditional folk ballad sources that has featured n all their many albums, save 2013's Terry Pratchett collaboration Wintersmith. Excellent as that album was it is good to have them back doing this traditionally-inspired material once more. Love the cover too.                 

The lengthy narrative of Cruel Brother begins with some harmonious a capella vocals before that typical Steeleye electric guitar-drum backing powers in and Maddy Prior's soaring voice takes over. This is solid, muscular Steeleye Span folk rock at its finest. Jessie May Smart's violin is excellent. All Things Are Quite Silent is a quiet, tender ballad with minimalist backing and a fine vocal from Prior.  Johnnie Armstrong is a punchy rousing rock number concerning the feuding, Border Reiver families of Northumberland and the Scottish Borders - The Armstrongs and The Elliots. It again features some impressive violin. At the bottom is a painting from Armstrong's time of him and his men.

Boys Of Bedlam first appeared on 1971's Please To See The King. Here is is given a makeover drenched in searing guitar feedback, and, would you believe - a rap! Yes, Julian Littman (I think) does a hip/hop-influenced, thumping vocal and deep bass break in the middle. Fair play to them for doing this. It is an energetic, storming track, full of verve and vibrancy. great drums sounds on it too, from the ever-reliable Liam Genocky. Great stuff. 
The melodic, haunting Brown Robin's Confession is, I believe, sung, sweetly, by Jessie Smart. She adds some fetching violin to the solid guitar and drum backing. Peter Knight's shoes were huge ones to fill, but you really don't notice the difference here, she is that good.

Two Sisters has a funky-ish guitar backing and a confident vocal from Prior and yet more wonderful violin. The melody has echoes of Mark Knopfler's Why Aye Man, vaguely, for me. It is another highly convincing track. Intoxicating from beginning to end. A beautifully evocative violin introduces the narrative Cromwell's Skull. Again, I think it is Littman and Rick Kemp on male vocals, and Prior comes in on the uplifting chorus parts. It is a tuneful, powerful number. It imagines Cromwell's skull reflecting on his life. It features some fine guitar work near the end of its eight and a half minutes. Time for a traditional Steeleye jig? We get one, in the frantic Dodgy Bastards, but it is seriously heavy, the madcap violin backed by some chunky guitar and pounding drums.

Gulliver Gentle And Rosemary is an exhilarating, effervescent rocker reminiscent of some of Steeleye's nineties-early 2000s material, such as appeared on Bloody Men and Cogs, Wheels And Lovers. It is catchy, upbeat and thoroughly uplifting. 
The brooding The Gardener has Prior on fine, beguiling vocal form. There really is some good material on this album. Bad Bones is another vaguely contemporary-sounding Julian Littman number with some wry lyrics and strong vocals. It features another "rap" piece in the middle too. It is ok, but it does sound a tiny bit incongruous alongside the other material on the album. The ten-minute The Lofty Tall Ship-Shallow Brown begins with a bleak, haunting vocal-violin-drum first part. Prior's vocal is powerful and gritty. The second part is a stately, moving sea shanty, Shallow Brown, featuring some killer guitar soloing and a violin that sounds as if Peter Knight has come back into the studio. Just beautiful. Although the album weighs in at a whopping seventy-two minutes and is certainly a monster of a work, full and heavy, packed full of atmosphere, musical brilliance and interesting lyrical tales. Most highly recommended.

Est’d 1969 (2020)

Fifty years after they formed, Steeleye Span return with more folky fare, led by the seemingly ageless doyenne Maddy Prior (although her voice now sounds unsurprisingly older). The instrumentation is, as always, immaculate, and the traditional narrative songs are as evocative as usual. The world is a better place with Steeleye Span in it.

Harvest treads a well-trod path through them rural greensward with a lengthy tale of 18th century agricultural hard times, delivered in typically robust Steeleye fashion. It is a bit uncohesive, however, not quite knowing where it is going in places. Old Matron features legendary Jethro Tull flautist Ian Anderson on a song that harks back to Steeleye’s early-mid seventies output. Anderson’s flute is instantly recognisable, of course. It is like something from Tull's Songs In The Wood album.


January Man is a slow, understated ballad featuring some lovely mid-song guitar. As I said, Maddy Prior’s voice is now older in timbre, but carries with it a relaxed, wise feel to it. The extremely talented Jessie May Smart supplies a fine violin solo too. It is a nice, gentle, undemonstrative song.


The band are full-on again on the solid sexual fidelity-themed bawdy shenanigans of The Boy And The Mantle (Three Tests Of Chastity), which features a vocal from Julian Littman. Mackerel Of The Sea is a sort of Alison Gross part two - telling of an unspeakably awful wife who turns her step-children into a worm and a mackerel. Charming. The Cruel Ship’s Carpenter is a familiar maritime narrative number, once again delivered in robust slow rock fashion, with some fine fiddle and lead guitar. Domestic is a staccato piece of rustic riffery that completely changes pace half way through. The second half of the song puts me in mind of Band Of Teachers from the Wintersmith album. Check out the wah-wah guitar near the end too. Incidentally, the first half is called John Hobbs and the second My Husband’s Got No Courage In Him.


Roadways is a bit un-Steeleye in its slightly country ballad feel. It contains another sumptuous violin part near the end. The closer, Reclaimed, is a song written by ex-band member Rick Kemp’s daughter Rose Kemp. It is an anthemic, unaccompanied song with a hymnal quality to it and it provides a fine postscript to a fine collection of songs and just maybe to this wonderful band’s career. 


If you like Steeleye Span, you are highly likely to enjoy these artists too (click on the image to read the reviews) :-

Pentangle
Fairport Convention
Albion Country Band

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