Sat, 14 Mar 2015 15:58:28 +1300
Album review by Michael Newbery.
Copyright © 2005.
All Rights Reserved.
A Christmas album at last. Sort of. Although a lot of these are Christmas carols, a number come from the pre-Christian solstice tradition. And, being Steeleye, this is not your traditional Christmas album.
Of course, Maddy has done several Christmas albums. This however is not Maddy Prior and
The Carnival Band Steeleye Span. It's a Steeleye Span album and sounds like it from the start. And it sounds like the current incarnation of Steeleye. Following a recurrent pattern after a personnel change, this is the second, "pushing the boundaries" album. It just so happens that its theme is Christmas/Winter; as the Hart/Prior "Summer Solstice" was summer, and Maddy's "Year" the whole yearly cycle.
Good to have Rick back. I think that he and Liam may be the best rhythm section Steeleye have ever had. They provide good 'bones' for the entire album.
I ordered on line from Park. At the same time I ordered some other CDs online from a local New Zealand source. "Winter" arrived hereâalmost literally on the other side of the worldâa couple of days sooner.
The Album Cover
It's a bit bland. The white of snow, plus the album title and band name. The white card however is not quite opaque so the lyrics show faintly through. The band have had some great album covers over the years, including very recently. This is not one of them.
Inside however, the notes are good. I like to read some of the background to the recording of the tracks and this album provides that, together with full lyrics.
The album opens with a full on rock version of
The First Nowell. If you bought this album expecting a 'Hollywood traditional' Christmas album, you would probably give up about now.
If you are a Steeleye Span fan on the other hand, you probably feel relieved. From the first bar, it is obvious that:
- The band is 'together'
- They are pushing the boundaries, again (still)
Peter and Ken seem to be working well together as shared lead instrumentalists. Both together and as backing one to the other.
Down in Yon Forest. This is a great song. Typical Steeleye 'feel', rooted in Kemp/Genockey, with Knight/Nicol leading the instrumental backing to Maddy's lyrics.
The third track is
Unconquered Sun. This is very much
Ken's song, from the distinctive opening guitar, followed by his distinctive vocals.
Ken appears to be a great asset as a song writer. His compositions basically match the Steeleye style, while extending it in new and interesting directions.
Chanticleer opens with an almost 'Fighting for Strangers' percussive intro. This song is another gem found by Maddy, this time from 1635.
One of the strengths of Steeleye has always been the singing and, with
Bright Morning Star, I'm glad to hear some a cappella on the album. However, this line up lacks the punch of the best previous groupings: no Tim; no Martin; and Ken doesn't seem to have found the balance against Maddy yet.
Peter again shows that he can write as well as sing and play. I like
Winter, that's about all I can say. Very nice violin from Peter, but also great balancing guitar from Ken.
It may not be as expressive as the violin, but I'm pleased to hear Peter back on mandolin. It's what is needed for
See Amid the Winter's Snow and thus the right option, rather than the easy one. Again, this is indicative of the album: doing things a little dangerously; art rather than comfort.
This is another song that swings with the archetypal Steeleye sound.
On the eighth track,
Mistletoe Bough, Ken shows his song writing skills again, with a song that sounds as if it should be Trad. arr Steeleye Span, but isn't.
Sing we the Virgin Mary is the sort of song you'd expect to find on one of Maddy's solo albums. Yet, right from the beginning, it sounds like a Steeleye track more than a Maddy Prior track. Peter contributes some lovely, expressive viola playing.
Today in Bethlehem picks up the temp after the previous track. One or the more interesting tracks, with a syncopated beat. It sounds a very disciplined track, with everyone working to the best interests of the song.
Blow your Trumpet Gabriel is Maddy with just percussion as backing. A much fuller sounding song than this description might lead you to believe. And Maddy is not awash in reverb either. A very satisfying song.
The third to last track,
Hark the Herald Angels Sing
starts out sounding a bit like "Lord Randall". As Maddy says "A slightly less robust singing of this commonly sung carol. But we've beefed up the backing."
For such a well known carol, they've taken some risks. A simple, soft vocal, with a full rock backing that always sounds as if its being held on a leash. Instead of letting loose with all the amps up to 11 as the temptation probably was, we get a swinging, but disciplined rendition.
And then it all got too much, and the governors got taken off the metronome and they cut loose on
Good King Wenceslas. Liam lays down a relentless beat and Peter and Ken take off. Great fun. If you feel particularly attached to a traditional rendition of this, you might want to skip this one. I enjoyed it.
In the Bleak Midwinter provides a nicely judged finale to the album, with Maddy backed by Peter on violins and viola.
Michael Newbery, January 2005.