No’am Newman wrote this review.
There was actually a minor – but dignified – scuffle in the Green Man editorial room as to who would have the right to review this disk. Such is the pedigree of Maddy Prior — one of England’s top traditional singers — that anything bearing her imprint is assumed to be of high quality. I’m glad that I won the fight: just hearing her cultured tones makes me forget the piles of less interesting disks that accumulate on my table, awaiting my attention.
Caution! This is what used to be called a “concept album”: half of this disk (what would have been side one in the good old days of vinyl) is a ten part pageant concerning King Arthur. This is a character who has starred in myriad books, movies and comics, and probably much apocryphal material can be found about him in the Green Man Review archives.
But this disk tries primarily to separate the fact from the fiction. “The historical Arthur is a highly controversial figure. Theories abound as to his region of activity and his ancestry.” are the first two sentences in the well written sleeve notes. Arthur also tries to provide in music a feeling of what it was like to have been alive in time of Arthur. Thus we have songs written from the point of view of Arthur himself: “The poet and the troubadour have stolen my name” are the opening words from “The Name Of Arthur,” from what constituted the aristocracy of the time — people who were more Roman than British, from the warriors, and also from more artistic and legendary viewpoints. “The Hallows” begins with the words “From my name has come a dream, a fable, a myth.”
The music to these sections use appropriate structures, such as “Sentry,” a song set in the form of a psalm with part of the Compline, or night service, included. “Tribal Warriors” has a rough and tough modal melody set to only one chord. After all, Arthur lived in the age before the invention of harmony, so it’s only fitting that some of the songs should have modal tunes. In reviews of other disks, I have been unsympathetic to those that renounce harmony or have simple harmonic structures, so I find myself asking why I am supportive of monochordal tunes here. The answer is due in part to the historical verisimilitude, but also because of the fine arrangements by Maddy’s colleagues of the past few years (Nick Holland – keyboards, bvs; Troy Donockley – Uilleann pipes, guitars, whistles and bvs; Terl Bryant – drums). All the Arthur compositions are credited to Prior/Holland/Donockley.
The entire Arthur suite makes varied and interesting listening, well worth playing and replaying. The lyrics too have historical weight which deserve careful study and make the era come alive.
The second half of the disk is composed of four traditional songs and one written by Maddy and Troy. There is a strong sense of deja vu here, as three of the four songs are well known: “Reynardine” and “Duke Of Marlborough” are to be found in the old Fairport repertoire, whereas Maddy herself has recorded “Lark In The Morning” several times. Obviously, these tracks boast classy arrangements and fine performances, but they are a slight disappointment after the inventiveness of the Arthur suite.
“Hail The Ball” is the only contemporary song in this section, but stylistically it is at one with the Arthurian material. The lyrics are about the Cumbrian tradition of ‘Uppies And Downies’, a centuries old game of rugby type anarchy played between two ends of a town. These are set to another modal tune, with an arrangement similar to that of “Tribal Warriors”; maybe we haven’t come that far since Arthur ruled the land in the late fifth century.
The practice of writing quasi traditional songs may horrify some, but it’s been my experience that such songs are much richer to our ears than the “finger in the ear” standard diet. Whilst I imagine that this fine disk will be labeled as “contemporary folk,” it’s difficult to picture any of these songs being played in a folk club by one person with an acoustic guitar. Modern technology is necessary in order to present these songs in their full majesty, and we are all the richer for Maddy and her merry men having done so.
This CD is well worth seeking out, and although it may sound a little unusual on first listening, repeated plays will quickly display its wealth and virtues.
(Park Records, 2001)