Essex-based alternative-folk collective The Owl Service has over the past decade led the field with its thought-provoking, innovative and sometimes cryptic artistic response to the folk tradition (especially that of the British Isles, and England in particular). The band’s adoption of the title of Alan Garner’s weird and wonderful novel based on Welsh legend was something of a masterstroke, and it formed an intriguing cultural access point in the early days of the collective, whose bewitching brand of psych-folk provided both timely inspiration and a springboard-cum-grounding for further inventive explorations, elsewhere on the wider folk scene, of what might loosely be termed the English folk psyche. Yet at the same time, as Owl Service founder and main-man Steven Collins has half-jokingly acknowledged, The Owl Service have always been “perennial folk outsiders”, never knowingly part of any scene, and embraced by neither the folk world nor the contemporary psych-folk scene; “routinely ignored in their home town”, yet with “a small, loyal following who know exactly what to expect from us”. Or do they? Even they may be in for a bit of a surprise with this latest Owl Service offering, Steven has hinted.
Inevitably (as I’ve already noted), Owl Service history isn’t entirely straightforward, for the band name has proved something of an umbrella identity over the years. Originally it was intended as a solo vehicle for Steven Collins to pursue his ideas in the studio, but it then soon developed into more of a collaborative venture when he felt the need to enlist a number of singers to help him realise his mission, and The Owl Service subsequently became a more or less permanent seven-piece outfit following the recruitment, variously, of (among others) Jo Lepine, Diana Collier, Dom Cooper, Nancy Wallace and Jason Steel. In the succeeding years, The Owl Service’s sundry releases also embraced guest appearances from other singers and musicians, notably Alison O’Donnell (formerly of Mellow Candle), and it became a daunting task to keep up with the often bewildering proliferation of formats of available Owl Service recordings, mostly on Steven’s own labels Rif Mountain and Stone Tape. Helpfully, though, virtually all of the band’s released output was collected together on the data DVD She Wants To Be Flowers, But You Make Her Owls, which was issued in 2012 shortly after Steven had put The Owl Service on “indefinite hiatus” at a point when, he says, he’d “kind of run out of ideas, but also fallen out of love with folk music”.
So now you’ll be wondering what happened to cause Steven to change his mind and take the decision to get on down and make another Owl Service studio album. Well, by late 2013 the band had reconvened for live performances, albeit in a slimmed-down four-piece form; at the same time, Steven had been “feeling the urge to make another Owls record, and knew (he) wanted to make at least one more album of traditional material, but didn’t want to make a folk album in the traditional sense”. He “started trying to play folk songs but with a modern, minimal rock approach, and it just felt right”… Meanwhile he took on two minor Owls side-projects in the shape of Three Inverted Nines (a special Hallowe’en-themed EP) and Jean (a piece concocted for an Alan Lomax tribute event), but the real impetus for a new Owl Service record espousing Steve’s latest musical enthusiasms had potentially been brewing among the textures and ideals of his Greanvine project, one of the pair of new ventures into which Steven had launched after he’d initially put The Owl Service on hold. This, at that point, arguably constituted his latest thoughts on a post-Owl Service take on folk song, at least as far as musical arrangement and setting were concerned, in that the Greanvine sessions often possessed an altogether starker, more electric soundscape and ambience.
This strand of musical expression can now (with a certain degree of hindsight) be heard to have reached a logical destination with the new Owl Service album. His Pride. No Spear. No Friend sees Steven and his cohorts (singers Diana Collier, Jo Lepine and Nancy Wallace) serving up an album of songs mostly (but not exclusively) drawn from the British folk tradition, without recourse to the usual folk instrumentation and largely steering away from conventional folk sensibilities by deliberately eschewing both the band’s own psych-folk beginnings and the more polished folk-rock climate inhabited by the band’s previous studio album The View From A Hill. Gone are the knowing leanings towards readily acknowledged folk peers (Fairport, Shirley Collins, Watersons and Carthys); instead these time-travelled tales are reimagined in the aural context of the sparse sonic palette of the American post-hardcore scene, the sound world of bands like 90 Day Men, Fugazi, Shellac, Shipping News and Bedhead, which Steven had been listening to with increasing frequency over the past few years in direct preference to folk music, with whose scene he has become seriously disaffected of late. The raw, honest demeanour of the current Owl Service sound therefore turns out to be quite a culture shock, albeit a distinctly invigorating one, for all that it (paradoxically) possesses a rather perverse attraction all of its own. I guess if you could equate the austere, lushly ethereal beauty of Greanvine with Velvet Underground, then you’d need to take this on to the next stage of stripped-down expression to reach the bold, primitive and sometimes surprisingly barren gestures of 2015-vintage Owl Service.
Fine and fierce though the latest Owl Service album undoubtedly is, it’s also inevitable that its statements will raise further questions, for its music is replete with contradictions: oblique yet direct, sparse and lean yet heavy; out of kilter with traditional musical views of folk song and yet still much fixated by it. Almost nowhere is the contradiction better voiced than on opening track The Widow’s Lament (the Burns lyric indelibly stamped on our consciousness through its use on the soundtrack of The Wicker Man), where an impossibly bald, emotionless drumbeat ushers in an exquisitely bittersweet keening vocal against cascades of gritty electric guitar. A triumph of execution against expectation if ever there was one, and a challenge that sets the bar for the remainder of the disc. Perhaps the cyclic guitar runs of the ensuing treatment of The False Knight give the song a more upbeat feel than it might be thought to deserve these days but elsewhere I’ve found nothing to question in Steven’s (and his singers’) freshly conjured accounts of these classic traditional songs. The sepulchral organ backdrop of Geordie harks back to Greanvine perhaps, except in the recessed quality of Laura Hulse Davis’s pleading, almost diffident guest vocal. The marginally fuller setting bestowed on the grisly ballad Hugh Of Lincoln clothes Alison O’Donnell’s stirring vocal quite impeccably, if eerily, while the majestic skirling riff maddeningly shadowing the latest Owl Service treatment of Child ballad Willie’s Lady (in a version learnt from Martin Carthy) brings the disc to a fittingly epic conclusion (for all that the vocal line is strangely backwardly balanced in the mix on this one occasion).
Sandwiched in between these slices of pure tradition, we encounter latter-day Owl Service takes on three choice non-traditional compositions. Anne Briggs’s darkly visionary opus Living By The Water (featuring a guest vocal by Michelle Babboo) remains a thing of wild beauty, while the remaining brace of songs have their origins on obscure LPs by cult 1970s psych-folk bands Caedmon and Midwinter respectively – the original artists’ recorded versions of which had, coincidentally, latterly been exhumed for Steven’s 2011 Owl Service Jukebox mixtape Acid Folk). The differences are interesting: the magisterial Sea Song ebbs and flows like the tide, crashing in and out of the structure on a grand tumbling-drum wave riff, the verses building the drama in between, whereas The Skater jettisons its erstwhile exotic psych trappings in favour of a more earthbound, more precisely enunciated delivery yet still casts its own special spell. Bearing in mind his avowed rejection of the folk-rock template on this set, Steven probably wouldn’t agree with me if I were to mention that the often spartan understatement of the electric settings, with their at times slightly prominent drumming, occasionally puts me in mind of early-70s folk-rockers Trees – that’s not meant as anything in the way of a criticism, but instead a positive comment on the compelling momentum and brooding presence of the album.
It’s rather hard to figure where, if anywhere, Steven will be able to take his music from here, should he so choose. Apparently, although he now regards his work within the realm of traditional song as well and truly done, it’s not clear whether His Pride. No Spear. No Friend is to be considered the swansong (albeit a fitting one) for The Owl Service as a band. Even so, somehow I still don’t feel this is the last word. For all that I greatly admire the new album’s uncompromising yet respectful stance, whose sheer honesty is summed up in Steven’s own unashamed statement: “This record is at odds with the current folk scene, but then so are we.” Yea verily, and so what, I say!
Review by: David Kidman
His Pride. No Spear. No Friend is released 19th February 2016 via Horn Records
Pre-order now via BANDCAMP