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Spirogyra - St. Radigunds CD (album) cover




Prog Folk

4.26 | 190 ratings

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siLLy puPPy
5 stars The early 70s was a magical time for the British folk scene as the contemporary folk of the 60s suddenly was infused with a burst of creative vigor that found the once placid genre branching out in myriad directions and taking on hitherto unexplored avenues of musical fecundity. Jethro Tull would launch their most successful brand of folk rock with "Aqualung" whereas the psychedelic folk scene found their best freak folk contributions to the genre with Comus' "First Utterance" and "Mice And Rats In The Loft" from Jan Dukes De Grey. Add to that, a flurry of albums by the Fairport Convention, Steeleye Span and The Strawbs and this era produced some of the best musical gems this genre has ever heard. Add to this list the debut album ST. RADIGUNDS by the Canterbury band SPIROGYRA. While the regional scene was seeing a renaissance of creative whimsical jazz-rock albums launched by The Soft Machine, Gong and Caravan, SPIROGYRA went a totally different direction and produced one of the best progressive folk albums of 71.

SPIROGYRA named themselves after a species of freshwater algae that has chloroplasts in spirally twisted bands, and much like the photosynthetic aquatic organism, this musical entity twists its music into unique and captivating forms. In case you're wondering the album title is derived from the Thuringian princess Radegund (note spelling difference) who became a queen and the patron saint of several churches in both France and England and lived sometime in the sixth century. The band was the brainchild of lead vocalist and guitarist Martin Cockerham who formed it with Mark Francis and Andy Duckworth way back in 1967 but everything changed a few years later when Cockerham met Barbara Gaskin (vocals), Steve Borrill (bass) and Julian Cusack (violin) while attending the University of Kent at Canterbury. The chemistry was instantaneous which saw the new members replace the founders with only Cockerham remaining. The band had no problem finding both a record contract and management based on strong compositions and an unorthodox approach to contorting traditional English folk music into strange new concoctions. The band released their debut ST. RADIGUNDS in 1971 and found instant success selling over 200,000 copies at the time of release as it struck a chord at the peak of the psychedelic and progressive folk boom.

ST RADIGUNDS is a veritable folky feast of musical yumminess. While there are great style shifts between tracks, there are a few constants involved. Firstly, Cockerham displays his best Beatles worship and and fortifies each compositional edifice with the most infectious earworms with the full harmonic heft of the Lennon / McCartney 60s with the one / two punch of Cockerham's frantic narrative descriptive rants and sing-a-long intensity that trade off with the angelic vocal diva performances of Barbara Gaskin who provides both an ethereal backing to Cockerham but also takes full command as she ratchets up the dynamic tension when she sings lead. On lead vocals she sounds somewhat like Annie Haslam of Renaissance and it's immediately apparent that she would go on to great things after the performances on ST RADIGUNDS which would eventually lead to her great sessions with Hatfield and the North (Barbara is actually from the English town of Hatfield.)

Adding a third harmonic counterpoint to the lyrical articulation in full modulation is the incredible virtuosic violin skills of Julian Cusack who somehow plays a mean Jean-Luc Ponty channeling his inner Paganini. The deftly performed finger breakers skirt the grey areas between gypsy folk, traditional classical and the contemporary folk of the era which was one of the key ingredients that set SPIROGYRA apart from almost all other acts of the day. While marketed as a folk act, this music is so much more with touches of psychedelic organ runs as well as snippets of trumpets, strings and recorders. Steve Borrill provides the perfect antithesis to the triple harmony effect of the vocals and violin as his bass skills perfectly compliment yet exist as a counterpoint. Percussion is scarce but appears intermittently with a purported uncredited cameo appearance by none other than Bill Bruford.

SPIROGYRA are often compared to the English contemporary act Comus and in many regards it is a fair comparison as they both branched out into daring new worlds of folk music never before attempted. Surely the violin is the main glaring similarity but so is the utter unpredictability of a seemingly stable song that suddenly takes a left turn into bizarre twists and turns, plays it out and then takes yet another bizarre detour into the unknown. While stylistically similar, Comus was more a freak folk band whereas SPIROGYRA never stray far from a more stable band and would be more appropriately compared with The Incredible String Band, which was one of Cockerham's primary influences as well. While the compositions are based in catchy sing-songy types of constructs, there are plenty of time signature deviations that emerge unexpectedly as well as extended instrumental passages that display the fully engaged virtuosity of the musicians. Lyrically the poetic songwriting skills of Cockerham cover the gamut of whimsical mythology to romanticism and political protest. ST RADIGUNDS is instantly a lovable album upon first listen and an easy 4 stars from the get go, however it takes digging in a little deeper for the more subtle standoffish tracks to sink in. This has become a staple in my musical world and one that sinks in a little deeper on every subsequent spin. This is one NOT to be missed.

siLLy puPPy | 5/5 |


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