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Steeleye Span

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Honorary Collaborator
4 stars This is the great Steeleye Span's fourth studio album and in addition to furthering their lovely communion of traditional British folk and blustery hard blues, it was the first release without founder/bassist Ashley Hutchings. Filling the gap left by he and Martin Carthy was the bass of Rick Kemp and guitar of Bob Johnson. The centerpiece of course are vocals led by the legendary Maddy Prior, Tim Hart (who also handles dulcimer and guitar) and Peter Knight's fiddle, mandolin, banjo and piano. The album's title refers to the placement of salt on a medieval table reflecting the status of those gathered.

Persistently seen as 'folk' or even 'pop', these traditionalists knew where of they spoke and brought a visceral legitimacy to their unorthodox fusions of the ancient with the modern. More intriguing than mother band Fairport Convention and with an authenticity Jethro Tull could nary match, the gifted ensemble bridged the gap between the forward-looking electric folk movement and the yearnings of the Old World. An easy jig from Knight and Hart is bumped-up by Johnson's startling low-end fuzz guitar for 'Spotted Cow', and a cappella 'Rosebud in June' is opened by Prior's pure pipes joined by the group's voices. More great Irish dancing quietly enhanced by a rock guitar on 'Jigs:The Bride's Favorite' but the electric instruments keep their place and play only a part here, and for that we are grateful. Bleak and brooding 'Sheep Crook and Black Dog' is uplifted by the fun of 'Royal Forester', a traditional lyric dating to the 13th Century and sings a chanty of a woman scorned. Child Ballad 'King Henry' turns gradually into a heavy folk bit with thick fiddles and a screaming guitar solo from Hart, cathedral voices by candlelight in 'Gaudete', John Barleycorn sacrifices himself in a celebration of all things brewed, and hauntingly beautiful 'Saucy Sailor'.

A brilliant outfit misunderstood and under-appreciated, Steeleye Span were masters (and mistress) of their realm and gave us progressive folk-rock at a time of imitators and mimics, and should hold at least a tiny place in a progsters collection. Let them surprise you.

Report this review (#184754)
Posted Sunday, October 5, 2008 | Review Permalink
Sean Trane
Prog Folk
2 stars 2.5 stars really!!

With Carthy's leaving the group as well the group's main founder Hutchings (leaving to found the Albion Country Band, SS had to resort once again to more line-up shuffling. Leaving Hart and Prior has the only remaining (and original) members, they kept violinist Peter Knight, but fetched Bob Johnson on guitar (and vocals) and Rick Kemp on bass, who didn't have an easy task in filling Hutching's shoes. BTS is the first album of what many will call the classic line-up, which indeed is the start of most SS's stable period. With a festive medieval artwork, the group continued with the label Chrysalis, which would soon get to help this version of SS with Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson's involvement (but that's for later).

No matter what some fans might say this line-up is no more "prog" than previous and it's certainly not this album that will prove their point, aside a few attempt at electrifying little known folk songs, such as the opening Spotted Cow, the boring and completely un-innovative jig medley Bride's Fancy bringing in a barnstorming snooze, the closing saucy sailor (recorded louder than the rest of the tracks for more "drama," I guess) and the sleep-inducing Barleycorn. Elsewhere the a-capella Rosebud In June, the lengthy King Henry (it's got an electrified fiddle solo in the closing minute) and the short Latin-sung Gaudette bring in a bit of variety on the album. Slightly of more interest for progheads are Sheep-Crook And Black Dog, which changes tempo and climate halfway through (that's got to be prog), and the other semi-jig Royal Forester (this is more than a filler), but it's a little too few to rivet a proghead to his seat and get excited.

But I saved the "best" for (second) last to prove my point: try to compare a real progressive band like Traffic and their version of John Barleycorn and listen to SS's version in the present album, and you shall see exactly the difference between a prog band and just another band who chose to stay traditional; while Traffic's version is riveting awesome and brings chill to the listener, SS's version is a pure bore, but most likely closer to the original version (if there ever was one) but here it appears as a filler.

All things considered, BTS is not a bad album per se, even a good pure folk album, but it's got no place on this site whatever others will say. So it gets three stars on its pure value, but it's certainly not essential, even less so than the debut album.

Report this review (#185011)
Posted Wednesday, October 8, 2008 | Review Permalink
Prog-Folk Team
4 stars After a decent debut and a couple of tentative follow-ups with Ashley Hutchings at the helm, Steeleye Span recruited guitarist Bob Johnson and bassist Rick Kemp, who provided them with much needed muscularity. While on the prior two releases the lack of a drummer was palpable, here one simply doesn't notice or care, because the newcomers provide a rock backing that fills out the full band sound.

Right from the opening track the change in attitude and impact is joyous. "Spotted Cow" is ostensibly about a young woman who is searching for her missing livestock, apparently a metaphor for virginity. Maddy's lead vocals are delightful but the spotlight is nearly stolen by Johnson's crunching guitar as it shifts pace, ebbs and flows, and almost does a stand in for an accordion. "Rosebud in June" is Steeleye at their a cappella best, but then so is the British hit, the reverent Latin hymn "Gaudete", in which the volume creeps up slowly, reaches maximum level for mere seconds, and then just as slowly slinks away. "Sheep Crook and Black Dog" returns to the sinister airs of the prior albums but with a greater maturity and purpose, while "Royal Forester" is a lively song (like a jig with words) led by Maddy but amply backed by Knight's fiddles and the powerful bass and guitars.

The album closes strongly with a splendid rendition of "John Barleycorn" and the inventive and engaging "Saucy Sailor". The version of the former is soooo different from that of Traffic that one can see just how much interpretation was involved in Steeleye's adaptations, one of the aspects that qualifies them as progressive. At their best, which is on 90% of this excellent album, Steeleye Span was a group that knew how to blend the simple honesty of folk music, the power of rock, and the nuances of progressive rock. In contrast with Fairport Convention who started fairly strong but were quickly savaged by key personnel losses, Steeleye Span started slowly, only blossoming when they were able to salt away the encumbrances of a few of their early members.

Report this review (#186632)
Posted Tuesday, October 21, 2008 | Review Permalink
Easy Livin
Honorary Collaborator / Retired Admin
4 stars "Oh God forbid says King Henry that the like betide; that ever a fiend that comes from hell should stretch down by my side"

Following the release of "Ten man mop. . ." in 1972, Steeleye Span once again found themselves two members down with the departure of Martin Carthy and Ashley Hutchings. The departure of Carthy might have been predictable as he was first and foremost his own man with a successful solo career to fall back on. The departure of band founder Hutchings was however something of a shock, in the league of Peter Gabriel leaving Genesis from a folk rock perspective. The band's future looked somewhat suspect, but carry on they did. Manager Jo Lustig was appointed, who instilled in the band a greater degree of focus. Enter guitarist Bob Johnson and bassist Rick Kemp (but stubbornly still no drummer) who brought with them a renewed freshness and another dimension to the band's sound.

A recording contract was secured by Lustig with the ambitious Chrysalis records, and recording of the band's fourth album, "Below the salt" got underway. The album title is a reference to the dining arrangement at olden days feasts, where the riff raff sat at one end of the table, below the salt. While the songs are all once again traditional, the interpretations here can be more adventurous, indeed progressive, than on previous albums.

The opening "Spotted cow" reassures us that the lead guitar which Carthy brought to the feast will continue in the safe hands of Johnson. While the song still features the traditional folk aspects (as we would expect), the arrangement is much more in the prog folk vein than we have heard from the band up until now, with regular tempo changes and a fine array of instruments. The following "Rosebud in June" features the vocal strength in depth of the band, the song being delivered as a fine multi-part unaccompanied vocal harmony.

The obligatory jigs once again feature the superb violin, banjo and mandolin playing of Peter Knight, the sleeve notes implying that the quoted titles of the pieces may possibly lack accuracy (according to a drunken fan anyway). Yes we've heard it all before on many a Fairport and Steeleye Span album, but such interludes are an integral part of their metabolism. It would be churlish to simply dismiss them, especially as they are so immensely enjoyable.

"Sheepcrook and blackdog" is a song from the English West country, collected by the legendary Scottish folk musician Ewan MacColl. The song slows things down to an emotional dirge with the supreme vocal talents of Maddy Prior taking front and centre stage. Once again, the song features a distinct change as it evolves, with a rare burst of drums (played by Kemp) adding extra meat to the piece. "Royal forester", which closes the first side of the album, dates from the 13th century. It features a simple repeating melody and hey nonny-nonny chorus, the accompanying lead guitar and violin laying down what was quickly becoming the trademark sound of the band.

Side two of the album opens with what for me is the definitive Steeleye Span song. The 7 minute "King Henry" is based on a traditional folk ballad collected by Francis James Child in the late nineteenth century. The song tells the tale of a relationship the king has (or perhaps a bad dream after a night of over indulgence!) with a mysterious woman. It is though the superb prog folk arrangement of the song which renders it an absolutely essential piece. This is Steeleye Span's "Sailor's Life" or "Firth of fifth". If you only ever try one song by Steeleye Span, it must be "King Henry".

"Gaudete" has over the years been something of a double edged sword for the band. It certainly introduced them to a much wider audience when it belatedly became a Christmas hit single a year after the release of the album. At the same time though, it did paint a rather misleading picture of what the band were all about. The album track fades in gradually as if the band are walking from a distance passing by and fading. The song is another a-cappella song, Maddy Prior sounding positively angelic.

The version of the oft covered "John Barleycorn" here is similar to that of Fairport Convention's, these traditional renditions being far more faithful to the drinking roots of the ballad than the rather muddled jazz working by Traffic. The album closes with "Saucy sailor", a shanty delivered by Maddy Prior with an obvious gleam in her eye.

"Below the salt" is probably my favourite Steeleye Span album. Here, the band find a true identity for themselves. The have the courage to take a collection of traditional songs, dust them down and present them in a unique (at the time) way, while retaining the integrity of the melodies. This is traditional prog folk pure and simple.

Report this review (#205915)
Posted Tuesday, March 10, 2009 | Review Permalink
5 stars The first two albums Steeleye Span made for Chrysalis (and Harts and Priors "Summer Solstice") are brilliant and essential listening. The first incarnation of the group released a very strong album. Then Terry and Gay Woods left the band and by the arrival of Martin Carthy, Steeleye Span released two very traditional inspired albums.

However, by 1972, Carthy and founder Ashley Tyger Hutchins was gone and replaced by the more rock oriented guitarist Bob Johnson and bass player Rick Kemp. This line-up released "Below the Salt" and "Parcel of Rouges", in my opinion the best albums by the band and they belong to the top 10 of British folk rock!

"Below the Salt" is still a traditional inspired affair but the sound is sort of heavier, thanks to Kemps solid contribution. By now,Tim Hart and Maddy Prior were the only original members left and they share the vocal duties more equal than before. Tim Harts use of diffrent string instruments interacts with Johnsons ecectris (and acoustic) guitar and Peter Knights supurb viola.

Side two of the original LP is slightly stronger and the version of John Barleycorn is superior of Traffics' version two years earlier. The odd choice of the hymn "Gaudette" as a single payed off and it became a smash hit. It could only happen in the 70´s!! The final tune, "Saucy Sailor" ,is probably my favorite Steeleye Span song.. Tim Hart and Maddy Priors singing is absolutely stunning.

The next move was to hire a drummer and by the arrival of Nigel Pegrum the band became more rock oriented but managed to produce two fine efforts - "Now we are six" and "Commoner´s Crown". Together with "Parcel of Rouges", "Below the Salt" is one of the best folk rock albums ever made!

Report this review (#253384)
Posted Sunday, November 29, 2009 | Review Permalink
Symphonic Team
2 stars Below the Rock

While this was the fourth Steeleye Span album, it is the earliest one of theirs that I have (so far) heard. In my opinion the band still had a long way to go at this point until they started to make any kind of music that might be called Prog Folk or even Folk Rock, but the seeds of what was to come can be found already here. On the three albums following the present one, new and exciting elements would be added with each subsequent album constituting a clear "progression" from pure traditional Folk to Folk Rock and towards Prog Folk. The only Rock element found on Below The Salt is the presence of electric guitar, apart from that this is rather traditional and not many Prog fans will find this very exciting. On the following albums they would add further Rock elements including Rock drums, piano, woodwinds and even synthesisers while also expanding their versions of traditional material giving them more adventurous arrangements. The great King Henry is here the strongest indicator of the progressive side the band would develop on future albums like Now We Are Six and Commoner's Crown (and continue in the late 70's, 80's, 90's and 2000's).

The vocals - both lead and harmony vocals - were excellent already here and quite sophisticated vocal arrangements can be found here. While strong vocals were always a hallmark of the band, I feel that Below The Salt is too much of a vocal album with many a cappella moments, most notably the "hit" Gaudete. One problem with this early sound of Steeleye Span is the rather crappy sounding electric guitar. It is clear that they were not skilled on that archetypal and near essential Rock instrument. The electric guitar sound would be much improved on future albums and the whole production too would be much improved. The songs themselves are often good, but there are some less than successful moments.

Below The Salt is certainly a decent addition to any Folk Rock collection, but Steeleye Span's best and most progressive albums were still ahead of them at this time. This is thus not the best place to start investigating this great band.

Report this review (#257076)
Posted Sunday, December 20, 2009 | Review Permalink
4 stars This album and this band is almost "too" authentic for me, Normally thats a good thing I guess, but i tend to like Progressive rock that Fuses different elements, Jazz, Psyche , or Blues, or even Folk music Ala jethro tull, I need drums typically and at least some sort of blues riffage, or a power chord or too. This band is quite authentic in its delivery, Yet way to mellow for me, Fans of renaissance will get a lot out of this i think, especially the ethereal female singing voice, Their next album was much more to my .liking , and much more proggy in nature. 4 stars, If you like the Jethro Tull style folk elements in their music, you will like this, but this is the real deal, not just a hint of it.
Report this review (#426069)
Posted Friday, April 1, 2011 | Review Permalink
4 stars Steeleye Span- Below the Salt (1972)

Collecting some folk-rock can really uplift the spirits in your living-room and finding some strong, light folk records that compliment the heavy psych-folk (Comus, Spirogyra, etc.) is important in that regard. Steeleye Span can hardly called progressive, but I must admit I think they are more inventive (on this album) then there bigger brother Fairport Convention (on for instance Liege and Leaf).

Steeleye Span plays folk with major traditional influences and minor rock instrumentation. The sound of the band on this album is full and warm and all instruments, as well as the vocals, sound great. The female, gentle vocals of Maddy Prior are a blessing for the ear. A good folk record is made by collecting beautiful and moving folk tracks, making well balanced arrangements and playing the music as traditional and authentic as possible. The band succeeds in this regard with a strong list of catchy and touching songs and some fine ideas about the arrangements. A slightly distorted rock guitar here, a phaser effect on a violin there and an a cappela track that sounds as if recorded in the back of church all are great ways to keep the music interesting. And of course a folk record has some happy tracks, but luckily this album doesn't have to much of them (they can really put me of). The recording of the album is perfect and all the arrangements sound pitch-perfect.

Conclusion. A great, gentle folk-rock album with the best of vocals, a well balanced reportoire and some nice arrangements. Love additions to every collection, though I wouldn't mention this album when talking about prog- or psych-folk. A warm four stars and a recommendation for collectors of folk music and those who want to uplift spirits in dark winter months ahead.

Report this review (#574888)
Posted Friday, November 25, 2011 | Review Permalink
5 stars Steeleye Span has been one of my favourite bands since I was fifteen years old and moved back to Stockholm after living in Kalmar for two years. I had listen to Swedish Progg and now I began searching in the folk rock genre. Steeleye Span was love from the first sight. At the time of this album's release in 1972 Steeleye Span had developed their sound to a new level in many people's eyes. I still claim "Please to see the King" a masterpiece but with this album they gained more recognition from their public. The singers here are Tim Hart (also guitar, tabor) and Maddy Prior ? an old team, Peter Knight plays mandolin, banjo, violin and piano, Rick Kemp plays bass and Bob Johnson plays guitar.

This record contains marvelous compositions, every track is awesome. "Spotted cow" is the first track, a lovely song about a cow which has disappeared. "Rose Bud in June" is another lovely thing with great vocals as usual. Thereafter a traditional jig with electric style, a dancable composition with edge and then comes "Sheep-Crook and Black dog" a dark folk song with different section. It's a dramatic work. "Royal Forester"gives us the typical Steeleye Span mood with a great bass, crying violins and a happy vocal line. The "King Henry" is a long and powerful progressive folk song, very traditional and very strong. "Gaudete" is not Steeleye Span's best song but their most famous- a latin vers which feels magic and religious in a good way. "John Barleycorn" is a nice folk song and "Saucy Sailor" is another of SS:s best and most lyrical and harmonic pieces. It contains fantastic instrumentation and vocals.

There is nothing less good on this album. I adore it totally. This is perhaps not the most progressive band on this site but still one of the best bands so you must try it. It's a lovely blend of traditional English folk music and rock, and yes the mixture is progressive. This is also a good start record if you want to try Steeleye Span. Don't begin with "Al around my hat" if you are a prog head, that is a very popularized stuff while this record "Below the Salt" it's pure and amazing Steeleye Span music. Highly recommended!

Report this review (#889209)
Posted Monday, January 7, 2013 | Review Permalink
4 stars Two records made me love the British folkrock scene: Liege and Lief of Fairport Convention and Below the Salt of Steeleye Span. I bought these records at the same time and was kind-a mesmorized by it. I collected much more folkrock, but these two records always remained unbeaten in its genre. These two artists created the typical British folkrock sound, which was obvious different the the American folk, because of the use of both man and woman vocals and the inclusion of medieval influences in the sound. Related artists are Fairport Convention, Triangle and Fotheringay and Ougenweide. Ougenweide is german, but also uses medieval influences and the combination of woman and man vocalists.

Below the Salt can be described as British artfolk with some electric instruments together with folk instruments like the banjo and violin. It is elegant and sometimes pastoral - especially the multivocal Gaudete - and reaches an highly authentic medieval folk sound which was never reached by artists like Jethro Tull or The Strawbs. Although Steeleye Span was never a truly progressive act, it has some symphonic lines in it and intelligent songwriting at this time of existence.

My favourite songs on the record are King Henry and the earlier mentioned Gaudete. King Henry has some nice returning violin melodies and a great bridge with some tension building and brilliant violin solo's. The song John Barleycorn is a totally different version then the earlier release by Traffic. Both versions are worthwile listening: the version by Steeleye Span is more symphonic and British sounding.

Below the Salt gives the impression of taking the listener back to medieval times, although I doubt if the music was so highly skilled at the time. The sound is more like pure folk then rockin' but will please fans of symphonic folk.

Report this review (#891210)
Posted Saturday, January 12, 2013 | Review Permalink
4 stars Tim Hart and Maddy Prior steer the good ship Steeleye Span into medieval waters, with a range of classic traditional songs given the electric folk treatment. With a mixture of full-band effort, a capella pieces, and a wide emotional range, the album is another success in the Span's ongoing project to explore the potential of electrified versions of traditional British folk music. It's not the trippiest, spookiest, proggiest or most psychedelic of the albums in this vein that would emerge in the UK at this time - you'd have to look to Comus or the Incredible String Band or Fairport Convention for that - but it is one of the more warm and inviting examples of the style.
Report this review (#1068555)
Posted Tuesday, October 29, 2013 | Review Permalink
Honorary Collaborator
3 stars British folk rockers fourth album shows them honing their skills as well as drawing some classics from their countries folk tradition.

1. "Spotted Cow" (3:06) If ever there was a truer Engllish folk song please let me know it: singing about one's errant bovine seems so mundane it must be a common enough event to make a valid topic for a folk song--a song worth singing (obviously). (8.6667/10)

2. "Rose Bud In June" (3:41) very traditional English Folk. (8.5/10)

3. "Jigs: The Bride's Favorite, Tansey's Fancy" (3:10) a very traditional English Folk instrumental with some rock and country elements. (8.66667/10)

4. "Sheep-Crook And Black Dog" (4:44) brooding electric guitar strums the opening before Maddy enters, accompanied by a second electric guitar, electric bass, and violin. Kind of cool. Halfway the music takes a left turn with arpeggiated guitar chords and a more subdued vocal style coming from Ms. Prior. I don't know why the band fashioned this rather radical shift--unless it's due to an entirely different song being tagged onto the opener--but then the music shifts back to the original motif for the final minute. Odd! But interesting enough to make my top three. (8.75/10)

5. "Royal Forester" (4:33) a more-dance-oriented song with some lively singing from Ms. Prior. The electric bass is too far forward while the annoyingly distorted electric guitar strumming is way back. Then, after the first verse and chorus, the electric instruments balance themselves in the foreground while Maddy dances along. I like the multi-voice vocal arrangement for the next chorus in the middle section. (8.75/10)

6. "King Henry" (7:09) A long story that suffers from the too-forward annoying bass play but is made interesting from the crazed violin and lead electric guitar play. (13/15)

7. "Gaudette" (2:25) an all-vocal performance in the ancient church traditions. Very cool effect of slowly fading in as if the troupe was coming up a street toward the listener. A top three song. (5/5)

8. "John Barleycorn" (4:48) Steeleye Span's take on a traditional English folk tale. This is surprisingly upbeat and loose-- like a late night drinking song--quite dissimilar to the interpretation made by fellow Brits, Traffic. I like Traffic's version better. (8.75/10)

9. "Saucy Sailor" (5:47) odd choice to give Maddy the lead vocal on a sea shanty--but then, this doesn't play out at all like a rollicking drunken sailors' song. The delicately played treated acoustic guitars and piano are quite interesting (though the bass is typicaly dull). My final top three song. (8.875/10)

Total time 39:23

A little more pure traditional English Folk fare than is my liking, I appreciate these skilled performers, I just prefer something a little more progressive or "proggy."

B/four stars; a recommended addition to any Prog Folk lover's music collection though not necessarily for the straight- laced prog rocker. I'm rating this down for this progressive rock music site.

Report this review (#2921655)
Posted Thursday, May 4, 2023 | Review Permalink

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