Steeleye Span’s Wintersmith

wintersmith-deluxe-square-1500It would be easy to say that a collaboration between Steeleye Span and Terry Pratchett was always inevitable, given their respective histories and their proclaimed admiration of each other’s work.  It may be an example of retrospective inevitability now that it has actually happened in the form of the Wintersmith CD, however.  In any case, the end result is one that is overwhelmingly a credit to all concerned; worthy of the names involved and their reputations.

Steeleye for their part have released one of the best albums of their near-45 year career, and one that fits into that oeuvre while sounding rather different to much of their previous discography.  It’s still folk-rock of course, with a pleasing emphasis on the rock side – but it’s quite an intense sound in many places in terms of playing, and certainly production.

It is also the first collection of original material by the current six-piece line-up of Maddy Prior, Peter Knight, Rick Kemp, Julian Littman, Peter Zorn and Liam Genockey.  In contrast to some previous line-ups, the sound is always full – for example, Zorn’s sax or acoustic guitar, important in their own right, also fill in any musical holes that may otherwise have been there, while the contributions of guests Kathryn Tickell (Northumbrian pipes) and John Spiers (melodeon) only add to the desired musical effect.

Bob Johnson, the band’s guitarist for many years in the 1970s and 80s, also contributes a couple of songs and occasional vocals.  His ‘Wee Free Men’ with its refrain of “No King, No Queen, No Master” is as catchy as hell and shows his ability to write traditional-sounding material has not been lost.  The afore-mentioned intense production can tend to bleed backing vocals all together to my ears, though, making it difficult at times to differentiate individual voices.

Terry Pratchett receives co-credit for all songs and recites a portion of ‘The Good Witch’ in a friendly and engaging style, along with providing some short but effusive liner notes.  Comparatively new guitarist Julian Littman proves himself entirely up to the task of writing Steeleye Span-worthy material such as the heavy riff laden ‘The Dark Morris’ and the excellent guitar work to accompany it.  Maddy Prior’s vocals, whether lead or backing, are still naturally high quality though she seems to not take lead as often as may be expected.  Rick Kemp’s vocals are at least as good as ever – the same can be said of his bass playing and songwriting and indeed of Liam Genockey’s ability to provide subtle or full tilt drum work.  Sadly, Peter Knight has announced his decision to leave the band after several decades’ service, at the end of the UK tour to promote Wintersmith.  He goes out on a personal high with playing that is sometimes beautiful, sometimes exhilirating, sometimes both at once.

Generally, the song’s writer is the one who sings it on the album.  This variety of writers ensures a collection that is not too weighted in one direction and makes for a well-paced set; lovely ballads such as ‘First Dance’ and ‘Ancient Eyes’ sit comfortably alongside real folk rock like ‘Band Of Teachers’ and the two ‘Dark Morris’ tracks (one vocal, one instrumental but bearing little resemblance apart from the name).

Over several listens, Wintersmith proves to be a memorable achievement that will surely stand as one of the band’s finest works.  Part of that achievement lies in the fact that they can still provide music of this overall quality after nearly four and a half decades, and that one doesn’t even need to be familiar with the book in question to appreciate the CD in its own right. Although they now need to endure another line-up change with Knight’s departure – his gorgeous ‘We Shall Wear Midnight’ finishes the album – there is every reason to suspect Steeleye Span will remain at their current artistic peak for a while yet!

(Park Records, 2013)

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