On August 8, 1914, the British explorer, Sir Ernest Shackleton, set off from Plymouth with his team in the ship Endurance on the start of the 1914-16 Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition, fully living up to the ship’s name, the explorers suffered all manner of hardships. The ship became trapped in an ice floe where it drifted for many months. It was finally abandoned as the ice continued to crush its hull with the crew having to camp on the ice in temperatures of -25˚C. A long march followed but it wasn’t until April 1916 were they able to use the lifeboat, eventually reaching South Georgia. When they did finally return home the World War was at a critical stage and most members of the expedition had to take up immediate active military or naval service. There are, as you’d imagine, hundred of exhibitions and events taking place worldwide (many continuing into 2017) to mark the centenary, but none quite like this.
The Florida based quartet Have Gun, Will Travel take their name from the late 50s TV Western starring Richard Boone and Science From An Easy Chair is their fourth album, the follow-up to 2013’s Fiction, Fact or Folktale? It is a full blown concept affair based entirely around the ill-fated voyage and named after a book about popular science by Ray Lankester.
It seems a bit odd to find Shacklelton’s story wedded to Southern Americana folk-rock melodies with ringing guitars and lead singer Matt Burke’s nasal vocals. And yet it works, the cocktail of twang, country stomp, clattering drums, electric guitar flurries, driving twanged up bluesy riffs and Mariachi-styled desert country rock somehow capturing the spirit the men must have called up to survive.
Charting the expedition, it opens with By Endurance We Conquer, which features the voice of Shackleton setting out his mission statement to the backdrop of circling guitars, pulsing cello and wordless harmonies before that sense of pioneering optimism fuels the jangling alt-country Spirit of Discovery with its lines about heading out into the open sea.
There’s a similar feel to the driving True Believers, the ‘us against the world’ song that was the album’s genesis, before a wheezing accordion and ghostly banjo slow things down on the crackly, brief instrumental Surrounded By The Pack as the ice closes in, leading into the uptempo rocker that is Madhouse Promenade as the crew face the fact that this may be where their lives end.
The mood shifts again for the organ and pedal–steel backed, ballad Goodnight, Sweet Chariot, a melancholic farewell to their ship that calls to mind The Byrds. It gives way to the racing military drum pattern, growling guitars and horns of the instrumental A Call To Arms and, in turn, the easy rolling country Good Old Shakespeare, another farewell, this time to one of the ship’s dogs.
Featuring the sound effects of tapping hammer, water-lapping and instinct voices, another instrumental interlude follows, the spare banjo-backed Fortifying the James Caird referring to the small lifeboat in which Shackleton and five of his crew would sail to South Georgia (an 800-mile voyage across the Southern Ocean) in search of rescue for the others, left stranded on Elephant Island.
It sets things up for the final three numbers that bring the story to a close, kicking off with the spare, skittering acoustic The Rescue Party documenting that incredible, perilous voyage and, shifting the picture to those awaiting uncertain salvation, the equally dark toned Despair & Redemption on Elephant Island, bluesy electric guitar etching the skeletal, slow swaying melody.
As history tells, the story had a happy end, the entire expedition returning home alive, and the album ends on an upbeat note, recalling 60s Greenwich Village folk with the celebratory swaying strummed acoustic, accordion, slide and handclaps Bottom Of The World raising a glass to Shakespeare, Shackleton and determination as the lyrics recall what’s gone before and how they “tangled with the devil at the bottom of the world.”
Aside from being a potted history of the Antarctic exploration that you can sing along and tap your feet to, it’s also a pretty damn fine collection of tunes and one that deserves to see the band finding much wider exposure, and not just in navigational circles.
Review by: Mike Davies
Science From An Easy Chair is Out Now
Order via Bandcamp: https://hgwt.bandcamp.com/