Having signed to independent label Folk Police Records, Sproatly Smith continue to push the experimental folk envelope with their third full-length release. Like their two earlier albums, The Minstrel’s Grave prances and pirouettes, and sometimes slithers and writhes, through a weird and wonderful array of electronic samples, found sounds, and wacky instrumentation.
The album’s strongest moments come when the when the band’s sonic experimentation supports and complements their often strong underlying musical work. “The Mermaid Of Marden,” a superb Kentish “Le Dejuner Sur L’Herbe,” opens on a tree-lined scene where birds chirp to a pastoral clarinet theme that is skilfully offset by a more ominous wailing voice. But the track’s playful introduction then moves smoothly and naturally into a delicate, acoustic tale that unfolds in soft vocal harmonies.
The album’s highlight “Blackthorn Winter” has a similar focus on getting the basics right. The first part of the song is driven by a simple melody and dark, evocative lyrics. The subtle accents on sitar and violin deepen the sound without unbalancing it. With the sudden introduction of percussion, the track finally builds into an upbeat dance that fuses all the group’s varied instrumentation.
The last four songs bring the album’s focus round to the theme of death, something that has lurked beneath the earlier tracks. “O! Death” is a hollow and haunting poem, à la John Donne, set within a rich synth-dominated soundscape. “Death,” the cover of a song from The Pretty Things’s 1968 concept album S.F. Sorrow, intersperses the story of a man’s bereavement with a sinister and heavily distorted vocal refrain. On “Elysium,” opening with a bizarre “S-P-R-O-A-T-L-Y” name check that sits awkwardly between psychedelia and gangsta rap, the band’s electric guitar riffs and splashy percussion form an odd change of pace. Then with the final track, “The Minstrel’s Grave,” they return to the more intimate folk sound at which they excel.
As “Elysium” illustrates, the band’s experimentation doesn’t always work. Sometimes their Pandora’s box of sounds is invasive, incongruous and cluttering. Opener, “My Mother Said,” sustains an incessant, schoolyard chanting of sampled children’s voices. The idea is clear, but the execution is grating. There are also short interlude-like tracks, such as “Song For Annie Needham” and “Silver Threads Amongst The Gold,” that are interesting for their samples but lack any real substance.
The Minstrel’s Grave demonstrates a band that are willing to play at the fringes of folk music and incorporate musical ideas drawn from rock, psychedelia and even rap. At times these experiments can swamp the excellent songs they overlay or depart so far from the mainline that they threaten to derail the flow of the record. Nevertheless, this album is exciting, rewarding and full of promise.
Review by: Matthew Ellis
Full album preview:
The Minstrel’s Grave is released on Folk Police Records (April 16th 2012)
The album is also available digitally via bandcamp