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Bluehorses - Dragons Milk And Coal CD (album) cover




Prog Folk

4.00 | 1 ratings

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4 stars Described by themselves as "fluffy bunnies", by an English magazine as a "leather-clad butt-kicking strutting & bowing foxy-babe-fronted sweaty folk-rock band", and by others variously as "pagan rock", "celtic speed machine" and even "Corrs on cocaine". I describe them as "stunning" but you probably already get the drift that this band are ..... different and difficult to pin down. After all, how many people are mixing Heavy Metal riffs with English Morris tunes? Or early 70s boogie-rock with well-known traditional ballads? See what I mean. One minute a noisy funky bundle of raw energy rampaging on traditional British dance tunes, fiddles flying and guitars crunching, the next a sad soulful elegy to the coal mining industry or a poem recited to simple harp accompaniment. Whatever the mood, everything is played with a powerful and melodic virtuosity as well as unabashed enthusiasm for what they are doing. The songwriting is very accomplished too with excellent 'social awareness' lyrics allied to well crafted tunes full of inventive twists and turns.

For this album the band were a 5-piece with a solid and pumping heavy rock rhythm section, a versatile raw and graunchy guitarist equally at home playing power chords as gentle acoustic strumming, and 2 girls who both sing and fiddle. [Debs, shown here as a guest, would take over from Emma as the band's permanent second fiddle immediately after this album] My only real criticism of this album is that, when in full flight, especially when the girls are letting rip, to my aged ears the sound becomes rather harsh and raucous. Otherwise, it is well presented in a crisp and clear production.

The album opens simply with Liz playing harp on Dragons Milk And Coal, a song inspired by Liz's grandfather who worked down Abertridwr mine right up to its closure in early 70s. The band soon launch into a noisy high-energy tune, a kind of electrified jig with one fiddle playing a riff while the other plays lead, all to a rolling rocking rhythm. The verse is quiet and a little eerie, and there is a nice guitar solo. In D'ya they are "all having so much fun" apparently with call/answer vocals and some atmospheric swirly effects over a pukka Heavy Metal riff.

Liberty is the first real folk-rock track, as would be recognised by fans of Oysterband or Wolfstone, an up tempo blast with a superb rocking fade out with soaring fiddle over guitar based riff. According to the liner notes "the fadeout was rocking along nicely so we had no choice but to leave it in" but even so it ends too soon. Barbara Allen gives us a breather: briefly! This is a well known traditional song given the Bluehorses makeover, beginning with an eerie take on the tune of Belfast Child, before proceeding into the song proper as a punk-folk version of Steeleye Span. And it works! The fiddles scrape, and the rhythm section punches the song along before an extended 60s style improvisational freak-out plays out with screeching guitars and wah-wah fiddles. Phew!

Rabbit In The Headlights brings the energy level down a notch or two, but it still manages to move along spiritedly, powered by a wonderful low bass guitar and bass drum pattern. All 3 fiddlers get to play and there is some nice soloing but the guitar takes a back seat this time. The vocals have a subtle phasing effect which sounds a little odd but is not unpleasant. Goodbye begins suspiciously with a 'medieval' interlude played on recorders. Normal service is soon resumed when the band catapult us into a barrage of Zeppelin-with-fiddles workout. The song changes both tempo and mood on several occasions, sometimes fast-ish with rhythm guitar work reminding me of Uriah Heep, sometimes more mellow spacey fiddle and organ over minor chords, before the drummer suddenly goes slightly manic near the end!

Flanders Field is quite a contrast. Written after visiting the Flanders Field WWII visitor centre it positively oozes melancholy, especially some ghostly violin playing. I must say Liz's voice sounds very good in this setting. The song ends with a recitation of Wilfred Owen's poem 'Miners' to a harp accompaniment. Old Haslam's Bits is alt.Morris (cf Albion Dance Band) - apparently someone suggested they try doing some Morris [traditional English country dance] tunes - this is the result! Its all jolly good fun with lots of "hoi"s and lively clacking of sticks as it should be. It is made up of 2 tunes, but the first is weighed down by a somewhat ponderous heavy rock arrangement. The second is much lighter and airy and generally more successful. A bit of a throwaway track perhaps but I imagine it went down well played live.

Witch In Wedlock is "a bizarre fantasy of female domination" according to Liz, which actually means it is a call for women to get out of the kitchen and think for themselves. The style of this up tempo rocker is back to Oysterband/Wolfstone territory, with mandolin adding a variation in the sound textures. Passer By is another Prog song - beginning with an intimate fiddle solo, it developes into a slow heavy rock riff with superb rumbling bass pattern overlaid with towering reverb drenched fiddles building a spacey atmosphere that could almost be Hawkwind (slowed down a bit!) before a very abrupt change in style to a guitar line reminiscent of early drummerless Steeleye Span. Weird stuff!

I can't quite place Dark Circle (Slight Return): it reminds me of someone from the early 70s with a suggestion of blues-rock, while yet maintaining a contemporary sound. Distinctive drum and thunderous bass patterns insistently power this along, until another sudden break into an ethereal middle-8 "now is the winter of our discontent made glorious summer by this hole in the sky" recited in a Welsh accent. They crank up the tension before the drums kick back in big time, and a sublime slide guitar solo finishes it off on a high. The album ends where it started with a song about mining, the appropriately named Mining Song, an acoustic number which mournfully depicts the last ever shift at Abertridwr mine with the singer reflecting on a life "digging for coal / all my life I'm / digging a hole / all my days".

There is one more track: the not so secret - it is mentioned in the notes! - (Secret Track) ["secret track is it?", "oh lovely, how about The Green Green Grass Of Home?"] is a zonked up trad type tune with a joke lyric. A bit of filler perhaps but its all good fun and it helps to remind us that this band may be serious about their music, but they love to have fun too. Anyway, it's all done in the best possible taste!

Bluehorses, uniquely brash and in-your-face, has produced an album full of raw yet exquisitely channelled aggression allied to a sympathy for the subtelties of the folk genre, yet played with a dexterity and depth of skill which belies the fact that this was only their second studio release. Challenging to categorise and equally difficult to rate. With only one or two weaker moments I love it to death, but my gut feeling is that it is not really a masterpiece in Prog terms. It would, however, make an excellent addition to the Prog collection.

Joolz | 4/5 |


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