The Steeleye Span name has long been an indicator of innovatory, often iconoclastic folk-rock. Not always entirely artistically successful, it must be admitted, and like any band enjoying a lengthy and healthy span of activity there will inevitably have been creative peaks and troughs even while the standard of musicianship has never faltered and many fine players have passed through the ranks. Whoever’s been within its ranks, though, the band has always demonstrated a persistence and a constant thirst for reinvention, which continues into the latest phase of their approaching-50-year career.
It’s been a good couple of years since the band’s last major project, the epic Wintersmith album and tour which was inspired by, and included settings of the writings of, the late Terry Pratchett. A major lineup change – departure of long-time member Peter Knight and recruitment of violinist Jessie May Smart – occurred between the 2013 tour and album recordings and the album’s 2014 expanded deluxe edition, and four tracks of the latter featured the new lineup (comprising mainstays Maddy Prior, Rick Kemp and Liam Genockey alongside Jessie and guitar/mandolin/keyboard player Julian Littman). At the turn of 2015/2016, guitarist Andrew “Spud” Sinclair joined the band (as replacement for the ailing Pete Zorn), and his presence within, and contribution to, the group dynamic is becoming well embedded in the band sound, and is now consolidated on disc with the release of its new studio album Dodgy Bastards. The title reflects the long-established Steeleye penchant for chronicling the time-honoured activities of murder, religion, incest, honour killings and the inevitably highly dubious characters (rogues, thieves, murderers, chancers, ne’er-do-wells, and tormented spirits) who’ve practised them throughout history and folk balladry. Fittingly therefore, the album draws noticeably on what might by now be regarded as traditional, nay archetypal Steeleye fodder – Francis Child’s monumental collection of English and Scottish Ballads, which provide the specified sources for six of the album’s twelve tracks. It’s surprising to discover, then, that all but one of these are receiving the Steeleye treatment for the first time.
The classic ballad Cruel Brother is a strong and brilliant choice for the opening gambit, and it begins with stirring, confident a cappella harmonies that usher in the driving beat for the unfolding of the narrative. OK, there’s a hint of the tried-and-tested “Hat” formula here if you stop to think about it, but it’s all put together so disarmingly freshly and persuasively that you can’t help but be swept along by its infectious momentum and the ingenious instrumental and vocal layerings which all pack a hell of a punch. This is probably the most “obviously Steeleye” track, and the onward transition into a “roll over, lay down” boogie section midway through feels absolutely right. Then “sweet goes the treble violin” indeed, as it leads into Maddy’s plaintive “questions” episode before the return of the opening chorus. Next comes one of the album’s most lyrical treatments – a deft and beautifully wistful revisit of All Things Are Quite Silent (not outed on disc since it opened Side 2 of Hark! The Village Wait).
Julian steps into the vocal limelight for the next track, the little-known dramatic reiver ballad Johnnie Armstrong, a feisty epitome of the current thundering Steeleye sound for sure. The pace doesn’t let up for the next item, which revives Boys Of Bedlam (previously heard closing the first side of Please To See The King) with a storming, pounding rock beat and anguished screaming siren-fiddle wailings, into which is interpolated a manic rap-style interlude adapted from one written by Maddy & Rick’s son Alex (fair game, since six consecutive verses of the song might’ve felt too much at one take) before disintegrating into a jittery, juddery bass solo and queasy instrumental postlude. The fairly obscure seafaring ballad Brown Robyn’s Confession turns out to be a real discovery, as well as marking Jessie’s exceedingly impressive lead vocal debut (Maddy joins her for the chorus). This track, like Cruel Brother, has a real epic quality, and its fully-clothed yet sensitive arrangement and interesting tempo shifts contribute further to its status as a disc highlight. The version of Two Sisters which follows probably suffers just a little by comparison, although it still possesses plenty of animated funky drive and drama and features a guest appearance from harpist Hattie Webb at the relevant point of the tale. Also guesting here, by the way, is the pumping melodeon of John Spiers.
By now, we’re only halfway through the disc, and its next brave entry is Cromwell’s Skull, an accomplished original by Rick which imagines the aforesaid skull of Oliver Cromwell darkly reflecting on its former life; this brooding, pacey 8½-minute epic climaxes with a majestic soaring prog-rock guitar solo, by the conclusion of which we almost feel sympathy for the dodgy b******!… The album’s instrumental interlude follows, in the form of its (deceptively fun?) title track, a decidedly heavy-duty “hail fellow, well met” romping jig that’s fair guaranteed to have you leaping up and down in the aisles. The comparatively light tone continues with Gulliver Gentle And Rosemary, whose arrangement seems to hark back both to Samain (from They Called Her Babylon) and the 70s Batt period (kindof marrying Abba with a chugging Creedence-Clearwater rhythm), sweet and appealing but nowhere lacking in power. Luv it!… After which, a chunky, grinding Led-Zepp-style riff is brought into service to underpin the elegant emotional poetry of The Gardener, which had previously cropped up on volume 2 of Tim Hart & Maddy Prior’s pre-Steeleye Folk Songs Of Old England but is here shorn of its refrain element; its culmination brings another typically fiery guitar break.
The Gardener is succeeded by the album’s dodgiest character – and arguably its dodgiest track: Bad Bones is a Littman original, a cleverly worded and quite humorous portrait in its own right and absolutely on the disc’s theme, but musically speaking it’s more of a throwaway and as such doesn’t really fit with the neighbouring material. An overly lengthy passage of stormy sea sounds then ushers in the disc’s ten-minute finale (are we treading lovely on the water?), which dovetails a variant of The Lofty Tall Ship/Henry Martin with an adapted version of the shanty Shallow Brown. Maddy’s rendition of the grim narrative is matchless, and the doomy arrangement (grinding guitars and sweeping violins) is perfectly suited to the tale (although after one playthrough I’d have preferred the FX track taken off). Shallow Brown is lovely: affectionately done as a plaintive lament, and sensitively scored (for all that the keyboard tone feels a touch cloying at first) with beautiful lyrical calm-sea violin and guitar solos; it’s a nice way of winding down after the rockist gestures and bluster of the preceding tracks.
The band itself describes Dodgy Bastards as “very long and very heavy”; yes, it lasts a monstrously generous 72 minutes, and it places an audible degree of emphasis on a heavier-duty rock sound. But that doesn’t mean a “lumbering dinosaur”, instead, a robust and surprisingly fleet-footed beast, with a wealth of classic nimble prog-rock-styled guitar manœuvres. And vocally too, there’s an outstanding strength and flexibility in the coordinated harmony work, with quite a special bond emerging between Maddy and Jessie. Both of the newer band members really get the chance to demonstrate their considerable instrumental proficiency, cohering intelligently with the whole band’s constantly evolving vision of folk tradition and beyond.
Out Now on Park Records