Apple Of My Eye are a multi-talented seven-piece originally hailing from Bristol but now fully entrenched in the London Scene, with two previous albums behind them. It’s not difficult to hear the effect the capital has had on their music: London has recently become something of a breeding-ground for the genre’s more anarchic outlying elements, with bands like Stick In The Wheel inhabiting the more rambunctious fringes of traditional music. Apple Of My Eye are similarly boisterous, but have chosen a slightly different route. On The Beast Below the band (Phil Cornwell, double bass; Arran Glass, guitar; Kit Massey, violin; Jo Silverston, cello; Alex Scott; guitar and mandolin; Chris Rusbridge, bouzouki; Dan Rusbridge, harmonica and violin) completely eschew traditional songs in favour of twelve strikingly original compositions.
The album’s title track – as brazen an opening statement as ever there was – actually begins with a pleasant but misleading moment of calm. Cello, violin, plucked strings and sweet, wordless female vocals conjure up a placid, even relaxing seascape. It doesn’t last long. We are soon thrust into the decidedly masculine world of shouted sea shanties, relaying first-hand a story of maritime violence whose perpetrator is a gigantic squid-beast. Here, despite the fantastical subject matter, the mode of singing takes on a very real vitality. Within the context of the song the assailed protagonists must sing together in order to work together and work together in order to stay alive. Singing literally becomes a matter of life or death. In this way the band are rescuing the shanty from its status as a relic form, making it current, and as such the song is a statement of the band’s musical politics. When the band sing ‘we will not go down without a fight’ they are adopting an unshakeable ‘us against them’ credo which has more in common with punk than folk: the sheer kinetic energy of The Beast Below’s final part – mirroring the chaotic physical fight described in the lyrics – is something to behold.
Indeed it is fellow folk-punks like the Pogues who I am reminded of as much as anyone else throughout the album. And like the Pogues, Apple Of My Eye are capable of some incredible moments of unsentimental tenderness, like Young One, whose intentionally ambiguous lyric and spare musical setting give it a vague but tangible sense of dispossession, or Balloon, which begins in folky simplicity (an a cappella intro redolent of pagan folk or hauntology) but soon gathers momentum as the hot air balloon of the title gathers altitude, billowing along energetically.
Some of the most impressive and affecting moments on the album come when the band tackle more sombre topics. Cloth, Needle And Thread is the story of the Oaks mining disaster in Barnsley. Such subjects are not uncommon in folk music, and most tend to fixate, often with good reason, on the injustice of the deaths and the incompetence caused them. Cloth, Needle And Thread, however, takes a slightly more subtle approach, and much of the song’s deep underlying sadness comes from the way it recognises that human suffering can be simultaneously individual and universal. The cathartic wash of violin that dominates the final minute of the song brings this home as poignantly as any words.
Another well-worn theme in folk music is the transportation ballad. Apple Of My Eye’s take on it – Australia – is proof that they value musical individuality and surprising lyrical imagery over traditional forms. The pliant double bass of Phil Cornwell is particularly noticeable here, and there are yet more crisp and incisive violins.
An impressive facet of this album is the sheer range of emotions the songs cover. Dug In The Clay is, unabashedly, brutally about death. The harmonies in the chorus (another of this band’s many strong points is harmony singing) lend a lightness and an airiness to a song that is otherwise earthbound in every sense. The tone switches to the darkest of humour on Brother James, a wild, ironic tale of death and rough justice set to Alex Scott’s vigorous mandolin. The levity is upped further on Polar Bear, a quick-fire stream of gleeful near-nonsense, with punchy acoustic guitar and Jo Silverston’s percussive cello to the fore. Hackney Brook takes the listener on a fittingly sinuous journey through London’s subterranean waterways, and the album ends with The Escape Artist, a deceptively simple story of love and survival against the odds.
The Beast Below was recorded live in the studio, and the result is an album that is organic but never unsophisticated. On the contrary, the variety of instruments and number of musicians mean that precision is paramount. As producer Joe Leach has stated, ‘a hell of a lot has to go right before it sounds like a release’ – any chain is only as strong as its weakest link. Apple Of My Eye are happily lacking in any such weak links, and as a result, they have produced one of the most exciting folk albums of the year so far.
The Beast Below is released on 19th September 2016
Pre-Order it here: www.applesinlondon.com/releases/the-beast-below
Wednesday the 21st of Sep in St Pancras Old Church
24 September 2016 19:30
The Prince Albert, Rodborough Hill, Stroud, GL5
25 September 2016 19:30
The Greenbank Hotel, 57 Belle Vue Rd, Bristol, City of Bristol BS5
More information here: www.applesinlondon.com