Kings of the South Seas is a recently-formed trio comprised of Ben Nicholls, who is known for his work with the Full English, Seth Lakeman Band and Dennis Hopper Choppers; Richard Warren, of Echoboy and the Hybirds and Evan Jenkins from the Neil Cowley Trio. The three musicians have combined their talents to explore the lives and adventures of the crews of 19th century whaling ships, as recorded in traditional songs, broadsides and hymns.
Ben’s inspiration for the project was sparked by a second-hand book that he picked up while on tour. Tom Hiney’s historical accountOn the Missionary Trail details a soul-saving journey around the lands of the South Pacific by two members of the London Missionary Society. But rather than the evangelical work of the men of God, Ben’s interest was captured by the accounts of the duo’s mode of transport aboard whaling vessels and the inevitable cultural clashes as the whalers spread European culture while the missionaries attempted to convert the locals to Christianity. The source material for the ten songs was uncovered during Ben’s research and the results were recorded over three days, live at Cecil Sharp House by John Parish, who is best known for his work with PJ Harvey and Eels.
The seafaring expedition begins with Ben Nicholls’ concertina and baritone and finds the narrator mourning the loss of both of his parents while he was away at sea. I Never Missed My Home is an adaptation of the broadside ‘We never miss a mother ‘till she’s gone’, which was collected in West Wittering in 1901 and is referred to in an article on the Pacific Loyalty Islands. A traditional song of the Northern Whale Fishery follows; Weary Whaling Grounds describes the hellish conditions and the overpowering stench of death endured by the crews on these depressing missions. A pulsing heartbeat and concertina is joined by a slow, distorted electric guitar, giving the interpretation a strangely appropriate gothic-rock feel.
The experience of life aboard the death ships continues with a song from the 1880s that records a part of the crews’ working day. Eight Bells refers to the length of each watch for whales; a bell would sound each 30 minutes; at the eighth bell, the four-hour watch was over.
The musically comedic King of the Cannibal Islands is referred to in Herman Melville’s 1846 book Typee: A Peep at Polynesian Life, in which it is danced to on the deck of a whaler. The jaunty tune was adapted from the broom dance Vulcan’s Cave but despite the jolliness of it all, the lyrics deal with some gruesome stuff, with beheadings conducted while the king looks on, laughing.
No collection about seafaring adventures would be complete without reference to some of the mythology from the era. The Great Sea Snake documents a typical tall tale of the Pacific seas, of a serpent of two miles in length and the time that missionaries lived upon its back as it slept, before it plunged into the waters. The snake was undoubtedly real in the eyes of the sea-weary sailors but a modern view might be that it was actually a sandbank.
The whaling ship Bengal left Nantucket in 1832 and Coast of Peru was discovered within the ship’s logbook. The song recounts the discovery, pursuit and killing of sperm whales, set to concertina, Evan Jenkins’ drums and Richard Warren’s atmospheric guitar drones which capture the depressiveness of the whole endeavour.
After a brief glimpse into life ashore in London’s East End and another look at a ship’s logbook to recall a sailor’s opinion of Tahitian girls, the journey ends with the hymn I’m On My Journey Home, which combines words from 1907’s Mead’s General Selection with a tune from the Sacred Harp of 1859.
Kings of the South Seas is a mesmerising album of interesting contemporary interpretations that provides a worthwhile recounting of the lure of the sea and the lore of the whales and the sailors who pursued them to their ends. The songs are variously tales of desperation to earn a living, misery, heartbreak, hard toil and cruelty, alongside yarns and tall tales. As a whole, it provides a powerful reminder of the extremes that were tolerated in the search for oils before the discovery of mineral fuels.
Review by: Roy Spencer
Kings of the South Seas are supporting Bellowhead on their UK Tour 15-26th April 2015, details below:
13 Mar – FIREBUG, Leicester- Headline show
25 Mar – Nest Collective, Old Queen’s Head, London
BELLOWHEAD SUPPORT TOUR….16th-26th April 2015
16 Apr – CROYDON Fairfield Halls
17 Apr – BRIDLINGTON The Spa
18 Apr – OXFORD New Theatre
19 Apr – TRURO Hall For Cornwall
20 Apr – GUILDFORD G Live
21 Apr – WARRINGTON Parr Hall
22 Apr – IPSWICH Regent
23 Apr – NOTTINGHAM Royal Concert Hall
24 Apr – LIVERPOOL Philharmonic
25 Apr – POOLE Lighthouse
26 Apr – BASINGSTOKE The Anvil