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Steeleye Span - They Called Her Babylon CD (album) cover


Steeleye Span


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3.53 | 11 ratings

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Easy Livin
Special Collaborator
Honorary Collaborator / Retired Admin
3 stars Back by Prior arrangement

During the recording of the 2000 album "Bedlam Born", things got rather stretched between the band members. Even before it was finished, the line up started to disintegrate, with Gay Woods leaving and Bob Johnson retiring on health grounds. Peter Knight and Tim Harries soldiered on in the live arena supported by various guests, but soon after former member Rick Kemp had rejoined, Harries decided separately that his time with the band was up.

In 2002, Knight managed to persuade Maddy Prior and Liam Genockey to rejoin the band, and Bob Johnson to come out of retirement. The line up re-recorded some of the band's best known songs, but Johnson's health remained poor, and he was not up to participating in the supporting tour. Guitarist Ken Nicol joined in his place, and the resulting line up, which included only Peter Knight from the previous album, recorded this album in 2004.

Fans were pleased at the news of a reformation of what many considered one of the band's strongest line ups, and Ken Nicol's folk pedigree (he had worked with Ashley Hutchings among others) was unquestionable too.

The album opens with one of its highlights, "Van Diemen's Land" (an early name for the Australian island of Tasmania). This version of a traditional Irish song, sometimes known as "The gallant poachers", is stately and atmospheric. Interestingly, it opens with a male vocal, the return of Maddy Prior being kept up their collective sleeves for the first verse. When Maddy does come in, her voice is controlled and rather out of character, even adding brief spoken word along the way.

Things turn back towards the classic Steeleye Span years with the upbeat "Samhain" a homage to a Gaelic festival. Even here, Prior's voice is only heard in harmony although the resulting guitar driven song remains strong and enjoyable. "Heir of Linne" finally finds Prior taking centre stage alone. This Child ballad tells the tale of a fool and his money being soon parted, although in this case the song has a happy ending as he regains his wealth. This is not by any means the band's strongest song, but it does have substance. "The bride's farewell" appears to be a folk song of Eastern European origin. It opens with multi-part a-cappella harmonies, but feature a strangely muted Maddy Prior on lead vocal. The slightly jaunty nature of the song contrasts with the heavier instrumental sections.

The title track tells the tale of an incident during the English civil War of the 17th Century. The song tells the tale in rather literal form, the male lead vocal sounding rather Strawbs like. Peter Knight adds some fine violin to what is for the most part a dirge with an uplifting chorus. "Mantle of green" is where we find Maddy's best vocal performance of the album. This reflective traditional Irish song with sparse instrumentation also includes some emotive violin from Knight. It is a simple but lovely piece.

The very brief "Bede's death song" is effectively a harmonic interlude piece leading to the upbeat "Diversus and Lazarus", another Child ballad ("Dives and Lazarus"). This time the song tells a sort of parable, once again in literal form. Musically, the strong lead guitar harks back to some of the band's early work around the time of "Now we are six". The male vocals here are rather out of character for the band. "Si Begh Si Mohr" is based on a melody written by the 17th century Irish harpist Turlough O'Carolan. Here the tune is played out on fiddle, this being the only instrumental on the album. The air has a relaxed, melodic feel of the type heard for the slower dances at ceilidhs.

"Child owlets" is a stomach turning tale of a young man being framed and murdered, delivered in deadpan fashion by Prior. Ken Nicol's guitar work here enhances the track considerably. The album closes with "What's the Life of a Man?" a song written by Bob Copper of the contemporary Copper family. The piece is delivered as a sort of "Auld lang syne" sing-along, making for a fine end to the album.

Whether "They called her Babylon" satisfied the expectations of the band's fans is open to question. There is no doubt that it contains some strong material or that the individual performances are competent. There is at times though a lack of atmosphere or cohesion, the individual songs seeming overly disconnected from each other. Overall, this is an enjoyable listen, but the album certainly does not command a place at the top table of Steeleye Span releases.

Easy Livin | 3/5 |


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