Monster Ceilidh Band – Mutation
Haystack Records – 7 April 2017
Monster Ceilidh Band, a six-piece outfit from Newcastle, are no strangers to experimentation, and with Mutation, they continue to demonstrate a great talent for producing innovative yet accessible music. A band which pushes the boundaries of contemporary folk in all the right directions, Monster Ceilidh Band never retreat into a pastiche of either drum and bass or folk. Their synergy respects both genres, and this results in an album that is both credible and really good fun.
The opening track, Venus, begins with a solo fiddle tune that sounds more traditional than might be expected, considering the graffiti-esque album artwork (which looks like it could have come straight from a Gorillaz release). A minute and a half in, and the fiddles are joined by lively piano accordion playing and an insistent mandolin rhythm. Then the drum kit arrives, along with some pleasingly unexpected tune directions, which build to showcase fast and competent playing. The track leads into the full drum and bass sound that the group are best known for, now cleverly interwoven with the original fiddle tune. These intriguing texture bode well for the rest of the album.
Trouser Worrier drops into dance much more quickly. The real talent here is that Monster Ceilidh Band’s style is clearly club influenced, yet light enough to still be enjoyable for those who are not natural followers of dance music. The track closes with fast and furious playing from the piano accordion and mandolin; an almost bluesy feel which breaks down into some frankly awesome slides. It’s nothing like anything I’ve heard recently, but it’s a great blend.
Lusty features more of the same winning formula, with dancing fiddles over a heavy rock beat, and the piece is played with a lyrical swing style which signposts that at its heart, this is still a folk album. The tune is from a Henry Atkinson manuscript of 1694-5, and it is a testament to the band’s arranging skill that they can fit it in so well with their signature style.
After this rock interlude, Reasoning begins as a softer, more pop-based offering, with a light beat from the drums and an upbeat tune from the fiddles. It’s a great stylistic contrast to previous tunes, which nevertheless remains true to the overall concept of the album. There were some clever pauses which made me smile, combined with swooping fiddle and effective use of piano accordion. Monster Ceilidh Band are not going to let the listener fall back on a more traditional safety-net though. It doesn’t take long for them to get back to drum and bass with a will, building in intensity with their characteristic inexorable beat.
It’s back to foundations with Mutated Beeswing, which comprises the Beeswing Hornpipe (1811-1853), and the self-penned ‘Mutation’. The original tune starts the set, and it seems a charming, typically Victorian, and rather pastoral offering. This tongue in cheek approach and the increasingly complex ornamentation show that they also know how to have great fun with musical style. There’s an amusing change of key, and then the piano accordion joins in as the tune begins to slide from the original in almost imperceptible ways. At this point in the album, you know the band well enough to appreciate that these little changes mean that they are gearing up for something big, and everything changes at the four-minute mark. The resultant use of rhythm and acoustic instrumentation is admittedly more subtle than I was expecting, and I give them credit for that. They didn’t just drop drum and bass on the tune from a height, but instead kept the sense of melody alive with vocals and a sense of busy flight. Oh, and a drum machine.
So far, Monster Ceilidh Band had kept me guessing in a way that I truly wasn’t expecting. All the Swingle Ladies is no exception. This is another band-authored tune with the charmingly traditional-sounding title of ‘Miss Carly Bain of Kelso’, dedicated to the band’s favourite fiddle player. Here, the whole group join in a lively (and yes, swinging) offering, with the addition of the now-familiar background drums.
For me, Never Will is the standout set of the album. A funk-blues feel from the bass is joined by a lilting tune from the piano accordion and fiddles, while the drums give a brilliant beat that you can’t help but move to. The second tune kicks off with inspired vocals and a wah pedal on the mandolin, which give a definite party vibe and dial up the funk inspiration.
Octopus starts as a strong and menacing fiddle tune which writhes in all directions. Penned by band member Amy Thatcher, it showcases the piano accordion and mandolin particularly well. Although not as sparkling as some of the other tunes on the album it does show Monster Ceilidh Band’s flair for storytelling with instrumental tunes.
Twisted Bridge sees the group firmly back on form, beginning with a bouncing traditional tune that is helped along by the drums and mandolin. Fantastic bass chords add to the richness of the sound and compliment the precision playing. The second tune feels more frantic, and I predict that this is where most listeners will be jumping up and down (if they haven’t started already). The set builds to an inspired moment where the mandolin drops out to let the fiddles come through before everyone joins in for a punchy and abrupt unison ending.
The final set, Disgrace begins with a block of sound from the chord players and a keening fiddle which breaks down into real drum and bass. There is an echoing fiddle overlay, but here it’s the drums that take centre stage. There is a competing and busy feel that is almost overwhelming. However, it does prove that Monster Ceilidh Band are great at layering sound. Everyone gets a chance to showcase their technique, whether that be funk and rock from the mandolin and bass, lyrical phrasing from the fiddles, technically perfect playing from the piano accordion, or a baffling yet intriguing collection of sounds from the drum machine. As the drum fades down at the end of the track, the listener is left with a faint melody, as well as a lingering sense of the potential of traditional music to surprise.
This may be the only time I admit that white noise and a drum machine could be a genius idea on a folk release, and the whole album is crafted like a good club set, sure to build a live audience up to fever pitch. Their sound is like the cool sibling of traditional folk, the one with the band t-shirt and heavy eyeliner. In short, Monster Ceilidh Band have created an album full of head-banging, glowstick-waving energy – and it’s epic.