During 2016, Paul Sartin, Benji Kirkpatrick and Saul Rose, collectively Faustus, have been artists in residence at Halsway Manor, the 15th Century building nestling on the flanks of Somerset’s Quantock Hills that houses the National Centre for Folk Arts. Death and Other Animals is a splendid legacy of this residency, owing much to inspiration found in the manuscript collections of Halsway’s library and to the wider influence of North Somerset’s hills and coast. The album’s inspirational relationship with Halsway was cemented when the trio chose the Manor House as their recording studio.
This is the third album released by Faustus, not a vast output from a band that regrouped with their current members in 2006, but that’s hardly surprising given the range of other collaborations that has kept the three of them amongst the busiest of English folk musicians over the last decade. Faustus’ recorded music may be small in volume, but that has been more than offset by its quality and never more so than in the 11 tracks on this album. Their vocal mastery of English traditional songs has long been apparent, but the depth and intricacy of the instrumental arrangements on Death and Other Animals takes their music to a significantly higher level. They’ve used their experience of arranging and playing in some of the biggest of folk big bands to great advantage, growing into a trio with a sound that can range from three-part a capella passages to expansive, and extensive, instrumental mixes.
As ever with Faustus, the choice of songs and tunes is a major attraction for anyone who delights in traditional music and especially so as, here, they’ve used their time at Halsway to unearth four pieces from the little-known archive of material deposited after the death in 1981 of Somerset folklorist Ruth Tongue. For two of them, False Foxes and Death Goes A-Walking the words are Tongue’s, set to music by Faustus. As the album title suggests, death figures strongly throughout and False Foxes weaves a tale around the superstition that the digger of a grave left open overnight will fill it themselves, I’m not sure why it’s being dug by foxes. It’s something of a Faustus trademark to incorporate a traditional tune into the song, and here the middle section is the Cotswold Morris tune, Idbury Hill. Death Goes A-Walking presents death as a figure walking the world, enticing those he meets to “feel my cold breath and join my merry dance”, all except the prisoner who would welcome an escape into death. The playfulness that is never far from Faustus’ music comes here with the dance tune that punctuates the verses, The Black Joke.
Also from the Tongue archive are two traditional songs, The Death of the Hart Royal, a rather plaintive tale, the accompaniment led by Saul’s melodeon and Paul’s violin, the sombre tone lightened a little by a three-part harmony chorus. The song doesn’t appear to have a Somerset connection in contrast to the final Tongue song, The Deadly Sands. A slightly odd wrecker’s song set to a Saul Rose tune, odd in that the hazard ships are tempted towards is sand not rock but also the wreckers don’t always get their prize, cargo can be swallowed by the sands before it can be retrieved. The setting for this skulduggery is the Bristol Channel coast just north of Halsway, Watchet Harbour getting a mention in the lyric. Watchet was where Cecil Sharp collected the version of the shanty One More Day that’s here given the full Faustus big band treatment. Behind Paul’s vocal, Benji’s bouzouki sets the pace with an insistent rhythm and a few tricks borrowed from his Hendrix persona, whilst melodeon, violin and, I suspect, anything else they could lay hands on, punctuate the rhythm with staccato chords that Bellowhead’s brass section would be proud of. Whilst the lyrics to most of the songs deal with mortality of one sort or another, instrumental passages such as this one, the interspersed dance tunes, or the one instrumental track, Paul’s Harry Kitchener’s Jig paired with Benji’s The Piper’s Rehash continually lift the mood back up, ensuring the album leaves you with smiles as well as times for reflection.
Faustus have departed from their previous albums by including some recently composed songs. Oh to be a King is a Bill Caddick composition contrasting the life of the working man with that of the privileged classes and it fits well with the opening track, a poem set to music by Benji. Written by William Villiers Sankey, a chartist from the 1840s, and originally called Ode, the poem was composed when Sankey was based in Edinburgh. It’s a message from Scotland reminding the English common man of the myriad shackles that bind him, hence the new title, Slaves. Gurt Dog is also a poem set to music. It’s a relatively recent composition by Olivia McCannon, relating a legend local to the Quantock Hills. When children wander out at night without their mother’s knowledge and meet a ghost dog on the moor, it rarely ends well. But in this case, the dog seems to be benevolent and eventually leads the boy back home. Paul set the poem to music and sings it in his best chorister voice. The remaining two songs are traditional and much more familiar. While Gamekeepers Lie Sleeping and Adieu to Bon County have been recorded several times but Faustus present both of them with a freshness that reinforces the feeling that whenever Faustus decide to give a song their treatment, the result is well worth it.
Faustus have long shown they can use three voices with very different characters, in just about any combination, to present their pick of English traditional songs. With this album, their musicianship has been given more room to shine, both with instrumental solos and with arrangements of a complexity that can only come from a band thoroughly at ease with each other and with their instruments. Putting all of that together they produce music that is true to its roots, relevant to today and, above all, ridiculously enjoyable.
Death and Other Animals is Out Now on Westpark Music