Isembard’s Wheel – Common Ground
Independent – 2017
Isembard’s Wheel is a fairly new five-piece folk band from Sheffield (they’re not to be confused with the differently-spelt, and brilliant young Midlands outfit Isambarde from a few years back). The instrumental complement of Isembard’s Wheel is string-driven, and comprises Ed Young (mandolin), Toby Morris (banjo), Rebekah Foard (fiddle), Joss “The” Mann Hazell (double bass) and Alexander Isembard (guitar), all of whom also take backing-vocal turns as appropriate.
Isembard’s Wheel released its debut EP, Autumn In Eden, back in 2013; it was a strongly characterised offering that showcased the ensemble’s punchy instrumental niftiness and vocal attack coupled with an abundance of attitude and energy on a collection of five original songs, penned either by Alexander or Ed individually, that represented their defiantly English manifesto and provided ample evidence of the writers’ poetic invention. It might come as something of a surprise, then, to find the band’s (crowdfunded) full-length follow-up album Common Ground kicks off with a traditional song. But hold on… for the band’s version of Adieu Sweet Lovely Nancy is anything but straightforward – it rollicks along nicely for the first couple of verses before taking a sudden curveball upward tempo shift (clever move!) for verse three then another for an instrumental bridge that slides into the Lord Of The Dance melody before the song’s final verse which kind-of collapses in exhaustion on the dance floor. A bit like one of their gigs, I suspect – judging by the hoot of a time the band members clearly have on the selection of live tracks appended to this studio set (of which more below).
Having “set the bar” (probably the one at the Uni Arms!) and established their trademark massive energy quotient, Isembard’s Wheel settle down just a touch for the first of Alexander’s five songs, D.T.S. (Durham Tower Song), an easygoing yet animated, affectionately evocative and slightly philosophical personal reminiscence of days spent in that city, set to a genial strolling drumbeat and wayfaring fiddle and mandolin. The Field Singer, another of Alexander’s creations, and clearly a key song within the band’s repertoire, comes next – here, and with more evident affection than he probably wants to let on (at least judging from his credo as outlined on one of his passionate blogs), he somewhat proudly evokes the landscape of England which is his home. Notably “the feeling of hope in returning home, mixed with the heartache of wanting to reassure my friend who remained toiling away in the steel city”, which “sent me down to the cliffs near my parents’ house … and the sight of the amber and amethyst of evening pouring over stark hills, perfectly poised to burst to bloom when Spring arrived again, meant that hope triumphed in the end.” He recently returned to that same stretch of coast, and those seabirds, ‘timeless and above us all’, remain. After a gently intricate guitar intro, the song gains a bustling tempo with banjo, mandolin and fiddle underpinned by a lyrical bowed double bass line. (Maybe, just maybe the chosen tempo’s a tad too brisk to enable the lyrics to realise their potency; somehow this feels more “right” in the tougher live-gig context.)
Ed’s wistful Ask The Time Away is propelled along by a ringing mandolin jig – and again maybe some of the words get lost in the scattergun energy of the delivery. The powerful, if enigmatic valediction Sowain Tul is done entirely a cappella, the consort of lusty male voices being joined by Rebekah’s hoofin’ to make a stirring, uplifting delight at the centre of the studio portion of the disc. Ed’s fresh-toned arrangement of The Union Miners comes next; this might well satisfy those listeners who don’t know the “usual” rousing tune which is (IMHO) significantly more anthemic, but those who do may find this treatment too chirpy and bouncy for the stirring subject-matter. The next track, Horse On The Hill (no, this ain’t a misprint) is another fine example of Ed’s songwriting, although the melody perhaps doesn’t quite do justice to the mythic power of the lyric.
The final pair of studio tracks, Turner’s Bones and Avalon, have a slightly rockier feel due to the presence of guest drummer Mark Rice, and there’s a storming electric lead guitar (David Ellis) high in the mix on the latter song, a triumphantly tough and thoroughly credible slice of classic folk-rock from Alexander’s pen, a song that to my mind also exhibits something of a Waterboys feel and provides an intensely worthy, mildly epic conclusion to the album. But, our appetites duly whetted, the disc then continues for a further 23 minutes with five bonus cuts recorded live at Sheffield’s above-mentioned Uni Arms. These comprise deliver boldly “this is now” and complete-with-banter versions of just three of the songs from the Autumn In Eden EP – the stonking Gloucester Gaol, and The Cliffs with its tricky vocal arrangement, are contrasted by the altogether gentler and more intimate Skylarks; the live set concludes with versions of The Union Miners and The Field Singer from the studio album, although to be honest, I think I’d have preferred comparably contemporary renditions of the EP’s remaining two songs.
Overall verdict, then? After the impressive aforementioned three-year-old EP, Common Ground offers more of the band’s wild, inventive, visionary “folk and then some”, which proves both highly infectious and highly irresistible. Moreover, the disc comes with a well-appointed and attractive booklet that contains all the lyrics to the studio-recorded songs. So wake, my wanderers! – for “we’ll meet again on steepled hills, where erstwhile are we”.
Common Ground is out now. Order it here: http://www.isembardswheel.com/store
Jun 11 – Croot’s Farm, Belper
Jun 17 – LIVE IN BARNSLEY FESTIVAL, Barnsley
Jun 21 – The Folkroom, London
Jun 24 – TRAMLINES FESTIVAL, Sheffield
Jun 30 – Worrall Community Festival, Sheffield
Oct 24 – The Folk Train, Sheffield