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Album review – The Unthanks: Mount the Air

4 Apr

Mount the Air: the single version of the epic track from the mighty new Unthanks album

Mount the Air: a triumphant progress of elegiac songwriting

Mount the Air: a triumphant progress of elegiac songwriting

From the first note, it is clear that Mount the Air, the long-awaited new album from The Unthanks, is more than a mere collection of songs.

It’s a lot to do with the honest, unfussy vocals of Rachel and Becky Unthank, which are the calm at the centre of each vividly rendered folk tale. It’s partly due to Tom Arthurs’ insistent, mournful trumpet, which is one of the driving forces in this immersive listening experience. And Niopha Keegan’s mesmerising fiddle. And the layers of sound that build beneath elemental lyrics without once overwhelming the compelling stories as they unravel.

In fact, there soon comes a point at which you stop analysing what makes Mount the Air such a quietly majestic piece of art, awash with inspired musical references and nuances, and just let it happen to you.

Not bad for a record that’s taken two years to make, was crafted in a home-spun studio in an old granary, and is released on the band’s own RabbleRouser label – The Unthanks having stoutly resisted overtures from major names  clamouring to represent them.

The extraordinary result is an important album, which shimmers on the cusp between drama and documentary – like a classic Ken Loach film.  It is rooted in the environment of The Unthanks’ Northumbrian heritage but equally, reaches out across a far wider musical landscape to embrace Blue Note jazz accents, lullabies, cinema soundtracks, Balkan beats and world music influences. And it’s a testament to the collaborative song-writing skills of the five-strong band.

From the title track to “Madam”, a bleak tale of faded beauty and betrayal, to the harmonic glories of “Magpie” – a perfect earworm for a long train journey punctuated by sightings of that troublesome bird – and the bittersweet cadences of “Foundling”, navigating the delicate line between hope and despair, the album’s elegiac progress is a triumphant blend of atmosphere and emotion.

Numbers like “Hawthorn”, “Flutter” and “Waiting” combine the ancient feel of classic folk songs with a contemporary resonance that marks The Unthanks as a vital, innovative presence on the British music scene.  Essential listening.

Rachel and Becky Unthank at the London launch of Mount the Air

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Album review – Serpentyne: Myths and Muses

19 Mar

Valkyries: Maggie Beth-Sand and Serpentyne take on Wagner and win

Myths & Muses: a glorious whirl of epic tales, underpinned by irresistible thudding rhythms

Myths and Muses: a glorious whirl of epic tales, underpinned by irresistible thudding rhythms

Here’s a thought for the dullards in charge of the UK’s annual Eurovision efforts. Why not ask Serpentyne to sing for us next year? I have no idea what the self-styled ‘Medieval-World-Folk-Rock’ band would feel about that. But I do know that the rousing fusion of their beats and the Game of Thrones vibe of their spectacular act is more in tune with broader European musical tastes than anything we’ve entered in the last two decades.

Their new album, Myths and Muses, is a rampaging set of epic tales told through the lead vocals of Maggie Beth-Sand, so evocative of great British female folk singers, from Sandy Denny to Anne Briggs and Shirley Collins.

What sets her apart is a robust musicality that allows her voice to hold its own in some pretty fierce arrangements, where it becomes as much an instrument as Mark Powell’s guitar, cittern and hurdy-gurdy, or the mandolin, didgeridoo and tin whistle that contribute to the variety of sounds. In this, she is equally reminiscent of the more esoteric voices of world music – Norwegian Sami throat singer Mari Boine, for example, or Greece’s Mariza Koch (who actually did Eurovision service, accompanied by a bouzouki, back in 1976!)

Back and forth we are swept, from the fiery story of Boudicca and the Iceni uprising against the Roman occupation of ancient Britain, to the legendary library of Alexandria, and on to an account of the Valkyries that elbows Wagner aside. There’s a Breton dance (“Douce Dame Jolie”), and several traditional English folk songs including “A Rosebud in June”, not forgetting Henry VIII’s convivial testament to “Pastyme with Good Company”.

Comparisons with Steeleye Span are inevitable, particularly with the inclusion of the Span staple “Gaudete”. But Sand and Powell have mixed in their own arrangements, introduced new melodies and lyrics, and with the other versatile players of the band they bring a wide-ranging set of new influences and idiosyncrasies to the feast. There is a ferocity in their playing which binds electronics, choral settings and swirling strings into a glorious whirl, underpinned by irresistible thudding rhythms.