With a career that has taken in an amazing six decades, Steeleye Span is not just a legendary name in British music but also a link to the classic days of rock and folk music.
Like their contemporaries Led Zeppelin and Fairport Convention, the band has gone on to change the face of folk music forever, taking it from small clubs and festivals into the world of chart topping albums and international tours.
“Wintersmith” is the new album from Steeleye Span (produced by Chris Tsangarides.)
It is a collaboration with Sir Terry Pratchett – famous for his fantasy Discworld novels. Terry was a long-standing fan of the band—he even booked them to play at his sixtieth birthday party. The subject matter is completely appropriate for Steeleye Span — tales of ancient rituals and secret folk dances — and it perfectly complements their previous works whilst also taking their sounds nin new directions.
For those of you who don’t know about Discworld, let me introduce to you Tiffany Aching. Tiffany is a fictional character in Terry Pratchett’s satirical works. She is an apprentice witch – the protagonist in the novel “Wintersmith”
In the story, Tiffany is taken to see a secret magic Morris dance that is performed to welcome in the winter season. The dance is an invocation of Winter itself / himself : The ‘Wintersmith’ of the title – and the incarnation of the season.
At the dance the ‘Wintersmith’ mistakenly assumes that Tiffany is the ‘Summer Lady’ (the embodiment of Summer) and starts falling for her.
Tiffany begins to experience more magical powers than she had before – these seem to be associated with the season of Summer – such as flowers starting to rise from her footprints.
The ‘Wintersmith’ is upset that his love has not been returned by the ‘Summer Lady‘ and he figures that she may have rejected him because he is an immortal – not human. After learning a simple children’s rhyme – about the constituents of a human body – he uses this ‘shopping list‘ to create a body for himself – so that he can woo the Lady. But he does not have any full understanding of what it is like to be ‘properly’ Human.
The ‘Wintersmith’ cannot locate the Lady anywhere and comes up with an ingenious method of coaxing her out of her hiding – he covers the land with a blanket of Tiffany-shaped snowflakes. This leads to chaos in the Human world – with villagers marooned in snow drifts and livestock dying.
Ultimately, the ‘Wintersmith’ locates Tiffany – he takes her to his Ice Palace for the final scene.
Steeleye Span have always viewed it as part of their job to “Add to the tradition…” For example, creating new stories that will expand the folklore of these Isles. The band saw the opportunity to work with Britain’s foremost magical folklorist as a chance to add to this body-of-work — interpreting an interesting tale from .
The album starts with the ‘The Dark Morris Song’ and, of course, a jig.
This has a squelching mouldy leaf-pile of guitar sounds (from Guitarist Julian Littman) — set within an intricate folk framework. It is rockier than you might expect — the guitars bruise the folk sounds with impudent ease.
The song changes course more than once — the melody hides itself in smoky glades — then it gets its long tapered sleeves of sound caught in the percussive workings. But the main song-themes emerge smoothly “These are the days of mystery and myth…” It sets the whole story off. With a kick of the heel.
The ‘Wintersmith’ of the title has his own theme song, of course. This theme begins with low, dark sounds reminiscent of Grieg’s “In the Hall of the Mountain King .” Then the voice rises like a black fog through a darkmoor thicket of guitar chords and regular riffs.
After that, we get to ‘The Good Witch’ which is a kindly song. Maddy’s voice daintily treads across the fronds of accompanying sounds — as fleeting as a dragonfly flitting between strong stems.
The concertina sounds add a bewitching Gaulish magic to this piece – the sighing fiddle ( Peter Knight) also adds to the glamour. The words of Sir Terry are spread out through the sound – like astragals scattered in the dust.
‘The Wee Free Men’ is one of those ‘Nursery’ type rhymes that the band enjoys playing so much. Sung by Bob Johnson — this has a clung of guitar at its heart and a winsome jiggle of fiddle that flies free around the edges.
This is one of the things that Steeleye Span do best. Simple jig-work.
So you can take up your pitcher, pull up your hems and start pawing on the barn floor to this…
Altogether now: “No King, No Queen, No Master … We’ll Not be Fooled Again…”
‘Fire and Ice’ has a faded 1980’s sound to it. Maddy’s voice is as high as a lark in a bright blue sky and as gentle as a nodding snowdrop.
Then ‘The Making of A Man’ has the clickety-clack and snapping fingers of the original child’s rhyme. The words are soaked into the cleaning sodas of strings. This becomes a gorgeous little ode.
‘Crown of Ice’ has a buzz about it. ‘First Dance’ is a swaying waltz. “I’m not your Lady of the Flowers…” is pleasant and melancholic.
Then after the ‘Dark Morris’ tune – with plenty of zob-stick clatters, rattling heel clicks and tip-teering elasticity — we come to ‘The Summer Lady’ and the mild wispy clouds of sound that grow like spiral gnat chimneys in an evening light.
The melody is sweet and effervescent – the rhythms shine like kingfisher wings caught in a flash.
Of course, like all folk songs, even this optimistic wassail has an edge of darkness and a gloomy outlook.
The final track song on this musical journey is the meandering ballad ‘We Shall Wear Midnight.’
This is an extremely enjoyable fantasy mix — a colourful concoction of rocking textures and carefully drawn, upbeat folk tunes. It brings Pratchett’s tale to life with a host of grinning licks, toe-kicking rhythms, cheeky ideas and colourful sound tapestries.
And for fans of Steeleye Span this is yet another important milestone in the anthology of the band.
This is not just for collectors. You will listen to it time and time again. And take immense pleasure from it.
– © Neil_Mach November 2013 –