Steel Sheep – Trucker’s Tan
Buma / Sterma – 12 August 2017
I had initially considered that Steel Sheep had based their name on the concrete cows of Milton Keynes, a revolt against the more bucolic components present in much folk music. This was further reinforced by the cover of their sophomore release ‘Trucker’s Tan’ which features a grainy waterlogged photo of a truck in a pool of water in a quarry. Not your usual folk album cover, I was expecting some dark dystopian tunes.
I was, of course, only partially correct. The band are based in Amsterdam but come from a variety of musical and ethnic backgrounds. They can be dark and brooding but also spirited as evidenced by the play on words (which I missed initially) of their name and song titles such as ‘Swine Flew’ or ‘Wisdom of Wombats’.
Formed in 2015 with the intention of performing ‘original 21st-century folk compositions with an egalitarian approach towards melodic and rhythmic roles’, Steel Sheep are a three piece of violin, double bass and guitar. They describe their music as ‘progressive instrumental folk’ although it is hard to do justice to the sound they make with mere words.
In folk terms, the nearest comparison I can recall is Bert Jansch’s charming instrumental record ‘Avocet’ an album dominated not only by Jansch’s guitar but also by the double bass provided by Danny Thompson. That’s a crude comparison though, Steel Sheep are consummate musicians with a wide palette of sounds of their own. The playing is consistently sure-footed though inspired, there is a willingness to experiment with textures and plenty of light and shade. Their virtuosity never grates though, improvisation is usually communal and there is never a sense of ‘showing off ‘which is a trap lesser musicians could easily fall in to. With just three instruments all members pull their weight in terms of playing but they also know when to fall back into a supporting role, all part of the egalitarian approach.
All the elements of a Steel Sheep performance are encapsulated in ‘Truckers Cyst’. A funky plucked violin is joined by a guitar countermelody and then a syncopated bass line. The guitar maintains rhythm while the other two string players present a series of tone clusters before diverting into a collective improvisation during which violinist Bela Horvat manages to coax every tone possible out his instrument. None of the instrumentalists sticks to any defined roles, guitarist Virxilio da Silva is equally at home with suspended open chords, jazzy runs or syncopated strumming, while bassist Matt Adomeit makes his instrument come alive whether plucking bass riffs or bowing so high up the neck it sounds more like a viola than a double bass. Horvat covers all bases from hoedown to Jazz to Bartok. His playing reminiscent, to me at least, of Jerry Goodman’s playing with the Mahavishnu Orchestra.
My favourite tracks are the most simple. ‘Mid Day Crises’ is a languid mix of limpid guitar chords, bowed bass and effortlessly soaring fiddle which is in no hurry to go anywhere fast and is all the better for it. ‘Air in D and E’ is basically a gorgeous violin and bass drone, perfect music for a rainy day.
So, not really your usual folk music in any sense. There’s plenty of jazz and classical references here and quite a European sensibility to the playing. In their lighter moments, the band would appeal to fans of Pentangle, at the darker end of the spectrum it would appeal to aficionados of Radio 3’s Late Junction or to anyone who’s owned a record on the ECM label.
Steel Sheep have produced a highly enjoyable instrumental album that skillfully avoids the polar traps of bland and indulgent. This is a challenging recording which will reward repeated listening.
Photo Credit: www.steelsheep.org