Since parting company with Steeleye Span in 2013, fiddler Peter Knight has concentrated his attention on the distinctive sound of Gigspanner – a bottleopener in musicians’ slang – where he joins forces with guitarist Roger Flack and percussionist Vincent Salzfaas. The trio’s debut album Lipreading the Poet was released to wide acclaim in 2009 and while they released live collection Doors at Eight a year later, it is only now that they have been able to complete the long-awaited studio follow-up, Layer of Ages.
Most of the pieces will sound at least vaguely familiar: Gigspanner has taken traditional tunes as a starting point and rearranged, orchestrated and improvised around them to create fascinating new works. Flack’s Celtic rock background, with Salzfaas’ studies in Senegal and Cuba bring a multi-cultural dimension to the sound, as the musicians meld startling, eclectic and often hypnotic arrangements that sometimes also flirt with jazz and classical styles.
Stereo panned fiddles and sparse percussion set up Bows of London, a macabre Child ballad that tells a sad tale of sororicide or killing one’s own sister. The hair and bones of the unfortunate girl are crafted into a fiddle that will play only the tune of the title and eventually, without human intervention. A version of the song appeared on Dave Swarbrick and Peter’s Steeleye contemporary Martin Carthy’s 1990 album Life and Limb but the treatment here is quite different, with guitar replaced by multiple fiddles to produce an effective chilling atmosphere around the lyrics.
She Moves through the Fair has been recorded many times but there is unlikely to be a more haunting or fascinating exploration of the traditional Irish tune. Peter’s sliding fiddle notes often sound like pipes as they meander and return to the beautiful main theme with subtle yet effective guitar and driving percussion. Cascading moods and tempos maintain interest as the piece progresses through its eight and a half minutes, building to an exciting dance-like pace before returning to calmer territory towards the end.
Broadside ballad Death and the Lady focuses on a conversation between the Grim Reaper and a young maiden, over a theatrical backing of harsh, growling strings and Vincent’s menacing drumbeat. Roger’s masterful blues guitar picking transforms into sinister dark chords towards the song’s powerful crescendo, with wailing feedback-like fiddle adding to a despairing soundtrack to an attempted bargaining for life.
A lamenting fiddle opens Gigspanner’s unique interpretation of the hornpipe King of the Fairies, pausing to allow space for Vincent’s conga beats to come into their own as the arrangement shifts into a gyrating Latin dance. A live recording of Peter’s own composition Louisiana Flack offers a departure from the traditional fare in a fast and fun romp that adds Cajun influences via Roger’s playing fiddlesticks: a rhythm tapped out on the fiddle’s fingerboard while it is also being bowed.
The lyrically disillusioned Hard Times of Old England is a perfect album finale and serves as a summarising showcase of the trio’s virtuosic playing skills. They move effortlessly and seamlessly through myriad styles and textures, from the track’s pizzicato opening via shimmering vibrato and delicate guitar chords to the song’s optimistic conclusion.
Several of the songs on Layers of Ages are expanded versions of traditionally shorter tunes but the skill and inventiveness of the players ensures that the listener’s attention doesn’t wander and they never outstay their welcome. It might have taken several years to produce this part-improvised, boundary-crossing wonder around other projects but the result is well worth the wait, leaving no doubt that Gigspanner’s increasingly impressive sound is like no other.
Review by: Roy Spencer
Layers of Ages is out Now
Order it here: http://www.gigspanner.com/shop.html
June 2015 Tour
3rd Milton Keynes, The Stables Theatre. 01908 280800
4th Norwich Arts Centre. 01603 660352
5th Alfriston (East Sussex) The Old Chapel. 01323 841414.
6th Whitstable, The Horsebridge Centre. 01227 281174
7th Wingfield (Suffolk) Wingfield Bams.01379 384505
10th Calstock (Cornwall) Chapel Arts Centre 01822 833183
11TM Torquay, The Bancourt Hotel.01803 323465
12th Nailsworth (Gloucestershire) Ruskin Mill 01453 837537
13th Cowbridge (Glamorgan) The Minstrel Room (above The Little Shop of Calm) 01446 771166
14th Bath, Chapel Arts Centre. 01225 461700
15th Nettlebed (Oxfordshire) Nettlebed Folk Club, with special guests Phillip Henry & Hannah Martin. 01628 636620
16th Tewkesbury, The Roses Theatre, with special guests Phillip Henry & Hannah Martin. 01684 295074
18th Ormskirk (Lancashire) Rose Theatre. 01695 584480
19th Otley (West Yorks) Otley Courthouse. 01943 467466