I’ll stick my neck out and say that Wigan-based band Merry Hell just has to be a prime contender for the accolade of the nation’s premier folk-rock band at the moment (pace Oysterband/Fairport/Steeleye fans!). It rose out of the barely-cooling ashes of 90s folk-punkers Tansads around six years ago, after a series of serendipitous right-place-right-time Tansads reunion concerts. Though retaining a nucleus of five former Tansads members, Merry Hell rapidly forged its own exuberant identity, building a massive following for its storming live gigs then winning itself legions of new followers through a healthy succession of self-produced album and DVD releases. Over the course of three studio albums, Merry Hell has grown into a mighty eight-piece outfit that can take on any and all-comers at their own game and emerge victorious on all counts.
I’ve said this in my reviews of earlier Merry Hell albums, but it’s worth reiterating – this band seems to have everything: driving, arresting and catchy songs, unstintingly excellent musicianship, and a natural flair for arrangement. This ain’t no “one-trick pony” band that rides on the strengths of one or two of its members to carry the day – Merry Hell is blessed with such a fantastic complement of songwriting talent for a start; although vocalist Virginia Kettle (wife of guitarist John) and mandolinist Bob Kettle (John’s brother) provide the lion’s share of the material, the new album also features fresh new material whose composing credits variously involve John Kettle and/or keyboardist Lee Goulding, while fiddler Neil McCartney makes his songwriting debut. Every band member more than carries his/her musical weight, so to speak, without grandstanding or greedily grabbing the spotlight, while many an ensemble could learn a lot from the band’s thoughtful approach to texture and arrangement, whereby careful consideration is given to matters of internal balance while still making an impact in all the right places and at all the right moments and allowing individual talents within the band to shine brightly. The very idea of an eight-piece band may conjure up a muddy, overcooked and overloaded soundstage – but with Merry Hell the load is spread sensibly and, having two striking, charismatic lead vocalists (Virginia and Andrew) who just don’t happen to play instruments, this danger doesn’t ever arise.
Bloodlines is a natural progression from album three (last year’s The Ghost In Our House And Other Stories); it sees the band further honing their proud songwriting craft on a uniformly strong collection of new material that, while at first seeming to major on rousing political commentary, actually also finds plenty of space amidst the cut-and-thrust for telling explorations of love and open-hearted reflections on life matters. Ultra-energised anthems are a Merry Hell speciality, however, and Bloodlines opens with one such, We Need Each Other Now, which is nothing less than a stirring clarion call for resolve and togetherness set to a purposeful, thumping beat complete with memorable hooks. The equally stirring Come On, England! may almost be seen as a candidate for alternative national anthem as its justified polemic appeals to our nation’s legendary traditions of tolerance which are in danger of being subsumed by “the robbers, the racists, the breakers of faces who hide behind masks and the red, white and blue.”
Between these two maddeningly infectious, superbly punchy tracks, we find the first of the disc’s half-dozen examples of Virginia’s extraordinarily versatile songwriting; it’s the album’s title number, in which she thought-provokingly yet wittily explores the connecting themes of genealogy and personality, setting these observations to a playful jig, a cheeky dance around the family tree. So now we are just four tracks in, and here’s what for many will be the disc’s highlight – for all that its overall sound and demeanour is less typical of the band. Coming Home Song is a tremendously moving little anthem penned by Bob; delivered virtually a cappella, it voices, in heartbreakingly simple and haunting imagery, the (sadly, eternally topical) plight of refugees who flee war in search of a life of peace. This magical, tear-inducing moment is well nigh impossible to follow, and the tone of the album necessarily becomes more ruminative for a while. All The Bright Blossoms, whose refrain mirrors the form of traditional song in a manner reminiscent of early Dylan and mid-60s jangle-rock, reflects on the effects on love of the passage of time; this is followed by the tender, wistful When We Are Old, a complementary contemplation of love in old age.
Stand Down then stirs us up again with its rowdy, feisty exhortation, capped off by a lusty reel. Then back to the theme of love, where important questions are raised on John’s deceptively gentle song Sailing Too Close To The Wind and the charming country-waltz-flavoured Chasing A Bluebird (Neil’s songwriting debut for the band), while Virginia’s pop-inflected Under The Overkill recalls the wonderful, ecstatic moments of love that we so desperately wish not to lose and Lee’s plaintive Man Of Few Words expresses love’s desires in true folk-pop-troubadour fashion. Between these we find the incandescent, almost cinematic epic Over The Wall (another of Virginia’s compositional triumphs), which voices the feisty determination of strikers, innocent working men, to escape their questionable imprisonment. Finally, Merry Hell leaves the (comparatively) “light relief” quotient for its closing salvo, a favourite – and obvious – live-set finisher which imagines us gleefully spending our last night on earth in Sweet Oblivion, in a frenzy of wild dancing and kissing (and hey, what better way?!).
Unwrapping this fabulous new Merry Hell offering brings back all the sense of anticipation and excitement of the old days when you feverishly wanted, in a spirit of sheer impatience, to experience the new album you’d just bought – all of it! – almost all at once. And then play it all over again. Lingering over every last detail of the accompanying booklet and artwork (this in itself is a triumph for Neil, another string to his bow!). Following all the lyrics through slavishly during replay. Then playing key moments over again right away. And then again (until it’s time for tea!). So yeah, embrace the music with all the abandon that Sweet Oblivion urges you to do, just in case it does indeed prove to be your last moment on earth. Quite literally, go raise Merry Hell!
Bloodlines is out now via Merry Hell Music
Saturday 12th Nov – Ragged Bear Festival, Nuneaton
Saturday 19th Nov – Bristol Folk House
Sunday 20th Nov – Hermon Chapel, Oswestry
Thursday 24th Nov – The Brindley, Runcorn
Sunday 27th Nov – The Convent, Stroud
Wednesday 30th Nov – The Red Lion Folk Club, Birmingham
For their full tour dates beyond November visit: www.merryhell.co.uk/gigs