Monday, 30 December 2019

Steeleye Span - The Later Years (1986-2016)



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The albums covered here are:-

Back In Line (1986)
Horkstow Grange (1988)
Bedlam Born (2000)
Winter (2004)
Bloody Men (2006)
Cogs, Wheels & Lovers (2009)
Wintersmith (2013)
and Dodgy Bastards (2016)

Scroll down to read the reviews chronologically.

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BACK IN LINE (1986)

1. Edward
2. Isabel
3. Lady Diamond
4. Canon By Telemann
5. Peace On The Border
6. Blackleg Miner
7. White Man
8. Lanercost
9. Scarecrow
10. Take My Heart         

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 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 Telemann.

Peace 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.

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HORKSTOW GRANGE (1998)

1. The Old Turf Fire
2. The Tricks Of London
3. Horkstow Grange
4. Lord Randall
5. Erin
6. Queen Mary/Hunsden House
7. Bonny Birdy
8. Bonny Irish Boy
9. I Wish That I Never Was Wed
10. Australia
11. One True Love
12. The Parting Glass                

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.

  

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BEDLAM BORN (2000)

1. Well Done, Liar!
2. Who Told The Butcher
3. John Of Ditchford
4. I See His Blood Upon The Rose
5. Black Swan
6. The Beggar
7. Poor Old Soldier
8. Arbour
9. There Was A Wealthy Merchant
10. Beyond The Dreaming Place
11. We Poor Labouring Men
12. The Connemara Cradle Song
13. Stephen
14. The White Cliffs Of Dover       

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 Drummer. The 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 Elves.

Gay 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 below 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 wold find it totally incomprehensible.



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WINTER (2004)

1. The First Nowell
2. Down In Yon Forest
3. Unconquered Son
4. Chanticleer
5. Bright Morning Star
6. Winter
7. See Amid The Winters Snow
8. Mistletoe Bough
9. Sing We The Virgin Mary
10. Today In Bethlehem
11. Blow Your Trumpet Gabriel
12. Hark The Herald Angels Sing
13. Good King Wenceslas
14. In The Bleak Midwinter 

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 Bublé or Rod Stewart roasting their chestnuts on an open fire, put this on for half an hour.



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BLOODY MEN (2006)

1. Bonny Black Hare
2. The Story Of The Scullion King
3. The Dreamer And The Widow
4. Lord Elgin
5. Three Sisters
6. The 1st House in Connaught
7. Cold, Haily Windy Night
8. Whummil Bore
9. Demon In The Well
10. Lord Gregory
11. Nedd Ludd 1
12. Nedd Ludd 2
13. Nedd Ludd 3
14. Nedd Ludd 4
15. Nedd Ludd 5  

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, 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.



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COGS, WHEELS & LOVERS (2009)

1. Gallant Frigate Amphitrate
2. Locks and Bolts
3. Creeping Jane
4. Just As The Tide
5. Ranzo
6. The Machiner's Song
7. Our Captain Cried
8. Two Constant Lovers
9. Madam Will You Walk
10. The Unquiet Grave
11. Thornaby Woods
12. The Great Silkie Of Sule Skerry                            
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 at the bottom) 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.



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WINTERSMITH (2013)

1. Overture
2. The Dark Morris Song
3. Wintersmith
4. You
5. The Good Witch
6. Band Of Teachers
7. The Wee Free Men
8. Hiver
9. Fire & Ice
10. The Making Of A Man
11. Crown Of Ice
12. First Dance
13. The Dark Morris Tune
14. The Summer Lady
15. Ancient Eyes
16. We Shall Wear Midnight 

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 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”.



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DODGY BASTARDS (2016)

1. Cruel Brother
2. All Things Are Quite Silent
3. Johnnie Armstrong
4. Boys Of Bedlam
5. Brown Robin's Confession
6. Two Sisters
7. Cromwell's Skull
8. Dodgy Bastards
9. Gulliver Gentle And Rosemary
10. The Gardener
11. Bad Bones
12. The Lofty Tall Ship/Shallow Brown     

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.



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